Most Irish Women Wouldn’t Recognise The Symptoms Of Ovarian Cancer

Women in Ireland are not confident they would notice the symptoms.

Photo by Pavel Danilyuk

Paula Carroll was diagnosed with early stage clear cell epithelial ovarian cancer in autumn 2022. 

The 57 year old mother of three began to notice bloating and a feeling of fullness, “and I was going to the loo more often,” she tells STELLAR.

“I ran the Women’s Mini Marathon in June and I was hoping to do a good time, but I had to stop to go to the loo a lot. I was thinking, ‘Oh, this middle aged businesses, no fun at all.’

“It kind of creeps up on you a little bit, anything that was happening, I was putting it down to being 56 – post menopause, middle aged – and I was just thinking this is what it’s like to get older.”

In Ireland alone approximately 400 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer a year, with almost 300 women dying from the disease. This makes ovarian cancer the fourth leading cause of cancer death in women in Ireland, after lung, breast, and colorectal cancer.  

New research, commissioned by the Irish Network for Gynaecological Oncology (INGO) to mark World Ovarian Cancer Day, has highlighted that nearly 8 out of 10 women in Ireland are not confident they would notice a symptom of ovarian cancer.

Paula explains that she had never heard of ovarian cancer before, “They have this acronym – BEAT – and I didn’t recognise that that was what my symptoms could be. I don’t think a lot of people are familiar with it.”

The BEAT symptoms are:

  • Bloating that is persistent and doesn’t come and go  
  • Eating less and feeling full more quickly  
  • Abdominal and pelvic pain you feel most days  
  • Toilet changes in urination or bowel habits  

“I had an operation called a total abdominal hysterectomy,” says Paula, “and in my case, there was a mass and it had grown from quite small in June to very big by the time they took it out in August. When they looked at the mass they saw it was ovarian cancer but fortunately for me, it was early stage.”

“People aren’t as familiar with the symptoms as they could be. I think even the GPs could be more alerted to the symptoms,” she adds. 

Early diagnosis can save lives and significantly improve survival – more than 8 out of 10 patients diagnosed with stage one ovarian cancer are alive five years after diagnosis compared to just 1 in 6 people diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. 

Photo by Cotton Bro Studios

Dr Michael O’Leary, a consultant obstetrician and Gynaecologist with a subspecialty interest in women’s cancers, says that there are many misconceptions surrounding ovarian cancer. 

“The most common misconception is that nothing can be done to check on it,” he says. “The idea that it just happens out of the blue and it’s something that can affect you without you knowing about it.”

Dr O’Leary explains that many people incorrectly assume that cervical screenings can detect other types of cancer too.

One in three women (34%) mistakenly believe that cervical screening checks for all five gynaecological cancers (ovarian, cervical, uterine, vulva and vaginal). It is important to understand that cervical screening only checks whether a woman is at risk of having cervical cancer, and no other cancer type. 

“That’s why people sometimes get confused,” he says. “They say ‘Well, I went and I had my smear test. And I got good results from a smear test. How come now I have a problem with my ovary?’ So while screening is good for some things it’s not good for the ovaries.”

Dr O’Leary also says that while the risk of ovarian cancer is higher for older women it can affect every age group, “Anyone can get ovarian cancer anytime. So people who are younger should also be aware of their potential risk. 

“If they’re not feeling well, if they’re having those BEAT symptoms, like bloating, feeling full, not having a good appetite, having problems going to the bathroom… Those things on a persistent basis cause the biggest risk. People should be aware of that no matter how old they are, and get checked out by their doctor.”

So, if you are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, what are your next steps? 

Dr O’Leary breaks it down for us – “First your GP will refer you to the local gynaecological oncologist, which is a gynaecologist who specialises in cancer treatment and surgery. Sometimes the GP will order scans, the usual one is a CT scan of the chest, abdomen and pelvis. 

“That gives you kind of a top-to-toe check of things. The important thing is that you’re seen by a cancer specialist, and that you have that scan booked, because that’ll give you an idea about how you should start treatment.”

But before that, if any of these symptoms continue for three weeks or more, you should always contact your GP. 

For more information on ovarian cancer click here. 

This article was first published in 2023.