THE lives of women with ovarian cancer in Scotland are being cut short because of delays diagnosing the condition, a charity has warned.
A study warns some women are not starting treatment until their cancer is advanced because they do not know what symptoms to look out for and because GPs are failing to spot the disease.
When the cancer is caught early women have a 92% chance of survival, but in Scotland the survival rate is 33.5% – among the worst in Europe.
Target Ovarian Cancer's pathfinder research, which involved 100 women north of the Border, found just 1% were very confident they knew symptoms of ovarian cancer compared to 3% across the UK. Less than one-quarter recognised bloating as a crucial warning sign.
Across the UK, 50% of women diagnosed with early-stage ovarian cancer felt their concerns were taken seriously when they first went to see their GP. Among those diagnosed with late-stage cancer, however, the figure fell to one in four.
Almost one-third were misdiagnosed as having irritable bowel syndrome and one-third only found out the cause of their ill health more than six months after first approaching their family doctor.
Lynn Downie, cancer support specialist at the Maggie's Centre in Dundee and co-organiser of an ovarian cancer support group, said some patients felt their diagnosis was delayed.
She said: "The women will sometimes say they have been going backwards and forwards to their GP repeatedly and maybe feel they have not always been listened to."
She added: "It is much better picked up at an early stage. Treatments will be more effective."
Dr John Gillies, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners Scotland, said ovarian cancer was difficult to diagnose because the symptoms of abdominal swelling, pain and sometimes changes in the way the patient passes urine were very common and mostly due to less serious conditions.
He said: "If GPs refer everyone with these symptoms the system gets overwhelmed."
Dr Gillies welcomed the Target Ovarian Cancer study, saying raising awareness of the cancer among GPs and patients was important. He also said all GPs in Scotland needed swift access to the ultrasound scan necessary to spot ovarian cancer and in some parts of the country the scans were not readily available.
Dr Gillies added: "Further research on how to spot ovarian cancer is important and there is research being reported even this month on how to do that."
Annwen Jones, chief executive of Target Ovarian Cancer, said: "Early diagnosis is key – 32% of women are diagnosed in A&E and 75% of women are diagnosed once the cancer has spread. This is unacceptable.
"We must improve symptom awareness with women, improve GP knowledge and ensure they have prompt access to diagnostic tests."
The symptoms of ovarian cancer are described as persistent and include swelling in the abdomen and bloating, difficulty eating and feeling full, pelvic or abdominal pain, needing to go to the toilet more often, unexpected weight loss, change in bowel habits and extreme fatigue.