More than a quarter of women with ovarian cancer saw their GP three or more times before getting a referral for tests, according to a new study.
Researchers also found that almost a third had waited for longer than three months after first going to see their GP before being given the right diagnosis.
If doctors are able to diagnose ovarian cancer at the earliest stage, nine out of 10 women will go on to live for five years or longer, but only around one in 10 survive if it is not caught until it has progressed to stage 4, the most advanced stage.
Ovarian cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in women – with the NHS saying around half of women with the disease will live for at least five years after diagnosis, while around one in three will live for at least a decade.
The report, by Target Ovarian Cancer, also revealed that 14 per cent of women polled said they were not given their diagnosis in private, meaning others could listen in on the exchange.
“I was told of my stage 4 diagnosis behind the curtain on a busy respiratory ward. The rest of the ward heard the conversation,” one woman said.
Meanwhile, GPs and ovarian cancer patients told researchers that the support available for the disease is insufficient – with almost half of the women polled not having been asked by a doctor, nurse or other individual providing treatment about how the cancer diagnosis was affecting their mental health.
This is despite the fact that 60 per cent of the women diagnosed with ovarian cancer said their mental health had been harmed by the disease.
The leading charity, which is urging people to write to their local GPs about these issues, warned that women are effectively being “overlooked” while “the deadliest gynaecological cancer continues to devastate and claim lives”.
Every day 11 women die from ovarian cancer, while two-thirds of women are diagnosed with the disease once the cancer has already spread, making it more difficult to treat and increasing the likelihood of it returning.
Mo Easton, a 77-year-old who ended up waiting for more than a year to be given the correct diagnosis, is grappling with her fourth recurrence of the cancer.
She said: “Seven years ago, I had symptoms of ovarian cancer but didn’t realise. I didn’t know at the time that the bloating, abdominal pain, feeling full and needing to wee more urgently were all signs.
“I had 11 visits to the GP before I found out I had ovarian cancer. Before this, due to chronic constipation, I was even told that I might have IBS – something very rarely diagnosed in the 50-plus [age group]. I later found out I did have ovarian cancer and it was advanced.”
Ms Easton said she was “diagnosed with high-grade serous ovarian cancer stage 3” – recalling that the consultant had told her: “You have incurable ovarian cancer and you’ll be on palliative care until you die.”
She added: “This is why it is really important to me that I speak to everyone about ovarian cancer and its symptoms. Ovarian cancer doesn’t feel known.
“Many of us aren’t aware of the symptoms. We need to get this knowledge out there and help people to understand the disease, as this might mean people receive an earlier diagnosis.”
Annwen Jones OBE, chief executive of Target Ovarian Cancer, said: “While there has been some improvement in recent years, our report clearly shows that we now need action taken to secure progress which is faster, further and fairer.
“We are hopeful that with the right targeted investment and backing from the government we can achieve this together, prolonging and saving lives.”
Just one in five women polled was aware that bloating is a key symptom of ovarian cancer. NHS England has pledged to make sure that three-quarters of cancers are diagnosed earlier on – at stage 1 or 2 – by 2028.
Dr Victoria Barber, a GP at Parklands Surgery in Rushden, Northamptonshire, who belongs to the Target Ovarian Cancer GP advisory board, said: “We want better access and support for GPs. No GP wants to miss a diagnosis of ovarian cancer or misdiagnose.
“They want to help their patient and provide them with the best care and solution possible. Target Ovarian Cancer is already leading the way with early intervention in GP practices across the country, but we need government backing to roll this out UK-wide and support our GPs and empower them.”