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Health

Bloating clue to ovarian cancer

Heather Clark suspected something might be wrong when she tried on a skirt on a shopping trip. She had always worn a size 12 but discovered she needed a size 16. Heather joked with her friend Cathy that, aged 55, it was probably to do with the menopause.

She had been careful with her diet and had kept fit through sport- she was training with her horse Barney for her next carriage-driving event, a sport in which she had competed for Great Britain at the para world championships. Maybe, she thought, the size discrepancy was because she had never brought clothes from this shop before.

In fact, Heather had overian cancer, a disease few people know the symptoms of- despite 7300 new cases being diagnosed in the UK every year and it being the fifth most common cancer in women.

And despite the incident with the skirt, it was not until January 2017, six months after the shopping expedition, that Leeds-based Heather- a production journalist with ITV- went to her GP to get what she thought was an umbilical hernia checked out.

Heather's cancer is stage four and incurable. Her experience, however, is typical of many women who ignore bloating as a potential symptom of the disease.

Although almost nine out of ten women diagnosed with ovarian cancer suffer bloating, for only one in five it is the symptom that first takes them to their GP, according ro research by the ovarian cancer charity Ovacome.

In its study of 324 women published last summer, it found that despite bloating being the most common symptom of ovarian cancer, followed by abdominal pain, women are more likely to seek medical help when they have abdominal pain (47 percent), or a change in urination (25 percent).

Ovacome's chief executive Victoria Clare said: "We know that women recognise the symptoms of bloating, but often dismiss it as being something less sinister. It is understandable that they often only seek advice because of less easy-to-ignore pain, but this mindset needs to change."

Ovacome is promoting its BEAT acronym of the  main symptoms of the disease: B is for bloating that does not come and go; E is for eating less and feeling fuller quicker; A is for abdominal pain; and T is for toilet habit changes, both urinary or bowel

Heather recalls that, although she never suffered from any pain, she did have other signs of ovarian cancer. “From that September I also had a loss of appetite and I was peeing more often, which I thought was part of a bladder problem I was being treated for. Ovarian cancer never even crossed my mind,” she says.

“But because my tummy button started very rapidly to become very raised and swollen over a few days just before Christmas, I thought I ought to get it looked at.”

Heather’s GP also didn’t make the connection that she might have cancer and prescribed her antibiotics and, after referring her to her local hospital, told her to go to accident and emergency if she was in any pain.

With GPs typically seeing just one case of ovarian cancer every five years, it is easy to see how symptoms are dismissed. Ovacome’s survey found that women who did go to their GP with bloating in 2016 had to wait an average of 22 weeks for a referral to a gynaecological specialist.

“I wasn’t in any pain and so didn’t go,” says Heather. “By this time though I was feeling incredibly tired. I had no energy dragging myself to work and was not really functioning at all.”

Eventually, after the antibiotics failed to help, Heather did go to hospital. She was worried as she was about to go on holiday to Tenerife three days later. This time she was told she simply had a fatty lump, which she might want to consider having removed after returning from her trip

“I felt reassured I could go and enjoy the winter sunshine,” says Heather, a wheelchair user who was born with short limbs caused by the Thalidomide drug.

While she was away, however, Heather became ill with laboured breathing. She was hospitalised twice and delayed returning home for two weeks. “I was lucky a friend flew out to give me company before my live-in carer joined me until my oxygen levels were high enough to fly home.

“I was feeling lousy. I would try to eat something but after three or four mouthfuls I was full. I couldn’t lie down to sleep as I couldn’t breathe. But at the end of January my oxygen levels had improved, so I flew home with a nurse and oxygen.”

A series of hospital tests when she got home revealed in February that Heather had late stage 4B ovarian cancer. Ascites (a build-up of fluid in her abdominal lining) had caused the breathing problem and she had tumours on both ovaries and a nodule pushing through her belly button. The cancer had spread to her chest wall lining, liver and left breast.

Heather, who is on her second round of chemotherapy in the hope that she will be able to have surgery afterwards, is urging other women with similar symptoms to press for answers from their doctors.

“Even if you think it might be the menopause or something like IBS, don’t be frightened to say you’d like a second opinion or referral. Keep pushing for answers,” she says.

“For me I learned the hard way that bloating is a symptom of ovarian cancer. Since being diagnosed I’ve made sure that Cathy, and my other friends – men and women – take it seriously.”

Find out more: If you’re worried about ovarian cancer, contact Ovacome by logging on to: (www.ovacome.org.uk) or using the charity’s freephone support line, tel: 0800 008 7054.

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