For three in four women, ovarian cancer is detected too late because the symptoms are often vague and reminiscent of other conditions. This is why cancer specialists and patient associations are now stressing the importance of recognising symptoms more quickly.
On World Ovarian Cancer Day (8 May), cancer specialists and patient associations are calling on women and doctors to pay close attention to recognising symptoms of the disease as early as possible, as it is often only found after it has already spread to other organs.
"Ovarian cancer is a very deadly cancer because, in about 75% of women, the cancer is only diagnosed when there are already metastases," gynaecological oncologist Toon Van Gorp of the Leuven University Hospital (UZ Leuven) told VRT.
"The symptoms are usually very vague, so patients go to their doctors very late. Typical symptoms can be vague abdominal pain, some discomfort, poor digestion... Very general complaints," he said. "We often notice that when a patient eventually goes to a GP or specialist, the complaints are not taken seriously."
'We urge people not to wait'
It sometimes takes several months before patients are referred to an ovarian cancer specialist, Van Gorp said. "Even so, you cannot always blame the doctor, because it often concerns very vague complaints."
Therefore, specialists are launching a campaign called Let op ("Pay attention" in Dutch) to raise awareness amongst both women and doctors of the difficult-to-recognise symptoms and emphasise the importance of a quick diagnosis.
"We hope to make more people aware, and if there are specific complaints, we urge people not to wait to see a doctor. You can diagnose ovarian cancer with a simple ultrasound scan," Van Gorp said. "It actually requires very little effort to request an additional ultrasound scan to diagnose it."
In 2020 (the year with the most recent figures), 808 women in Belgium were diagnosed with ovarian cancer – making it the eighth most common type of cancer in women in the country. It is most common in post-menopausal women but can appear at any age. In rare cases, a specific form of ovarian cancer (the germ cell tumour) also occurs in younger women. In 2019, 611 women died of ovarian cancer in Belgium; 52.3% of patients die within five years.
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Additionally, several experts are also calling for a more centralised system of ovarian cancer care in Belgium. "There are 100 hospitals in our country that treat ovarian cancer, so there are about eight patients per year per hospital which is very few."
Strikingly, a 2022 report from the Federal Knowledge Centre indicated that there is a huge difference in survival rates between hospitals: in the 25 hospitals that treat the most patients, the survival time is 4.2 years, but in the 25 hospitals that treat the fewest patients, it is 1.7 years.
"That means the chances of survival would go up if we centralised the knowledge and experience of (ovarian) cancer," Van Gorp stressed.