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Ovarian cancer postcode lottery: “It is a tragedy when a woman suffers from a potentially preventable cancer”

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Hannah Mendelsohn
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Ovarian cancer diagnosis

New information shared on World Ovarian Cancer Day has shown that diagnosis is a ‘postcode lottery’. Here, Stylist speaks with gynaecology expert Adeola Olaitan about what can be done to change this.

We all know someone who has been touched by cancer: it’s a disease that doesn’t discriminate. And, every single year in the UK, over 21,000 women are diagnosed with some form of gynaecological cancer.

Now, a new analysis of government statistics by Target Ovarian Cancer has proven that thousands of women are being diagnosed too late across England – yet more proof of what is being dubbed an unfortunate “postcode lottery”. 

During the years between 2012 and 2017, only 29% of ovarian cancer cases in NHS North East Essex were diagnosed at stages one or two, when the disease is easier to treat and survival rates are higher. Just 35 miles away, though, Islington had the highest performing clinical commissioning group (CCG) figures for those same years, with 60% of diagnoses being made during the early stages. This means there is a range of more than 30% between the best and the worst performing CCG between 2012 and 2017. 

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The charity has said thousands of lives could be saved if CCGs raised their standards to level the field. Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged three out of four people will have their cancer diagnosed at an early stage by 2028, but the recommendations alongside these findings say this can only be done by understanding this postcode lottery more.

Taking a wider look at ovarian and cervical cancers, the Eve Appeal says awareness of these diseases is low.

There are simple steps that can be taken for early diagnosis– regular smear tests, for example, can help prevent cervical cancer, yet NHS figures show that only 71% of women are going for their smear tests. That means millions of women are missing a quick test… but why?

Stylist spoke to Ms Adeola Olaitan, Member of the HCA Healthcare UK Gynaecology Cancer Board, on World Ovarian Cancer Day (WOCD) about the disease. 

It is a tragedy when a woman suffers from a potentially preventable cancer 

However, despite the success of the screening system two women still die every day of cervical cancer. I channel my emotions towards raising public awareness and education so women understand the purpose of cervical screening so they can make informed choices rather than default based on false information.

Ovarian cancer diagnosis postcode lottery
Ovarian cancer diagnosis postcode lottery

Cervical screening uptake is at its lowest point for 20 years 

Statistics show that one in four women fails to accept her screening invitation. This is why Public Health England has launched the cervical screening saves lives campaign. At the time Jade Goody was sadly dying of cervical cancer there was a lot of press coverage and this led to a large increase in women attending cervical screening. Unfortunately these numbers have steadily declined since that time.

The reasons for not attending smear tests are complex and multi factorial

Access may be an issue for women. A lot of people work far from home and their GPs are located close to home. It may require taking a day off work to get cervical screening and thus it may not be prioritised. Embarrassment and fear have also been identified as factors limiting uptake.

There may also be a misunderstanding of the purpose of the smear test 

The smear test is incorrectly referred to as a cancer test in the popular press which is wrong. It is not a test to detect cancer: it is a test to protect women from cervical cancer by detecting pre-cancerous changes in the cells that line the cervix. These changes cause no symptoms so you would not be aware of them without screening. These changes are fully treatable but if undetected and untreated these changes can develop into cancer. Women who attend regular screenings are unlikely to get cancer.

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My advice to women is not to ignore their screening invitation 

Instead, women should discuss their concerns with the smear taker. There are tricks and tips to make the test easier to tolerate. It is not usually a painful test – it can be uncomfortable but it takes less than 10 minutes, a worthwhile investment to protect your health every three to five years.

Research suggests that urine tests can detect high risk HPV

HPV is the virus that causes cervical cancer and may in future be an option for screening. This would be welcome as it can potentially tackle both the embarrassment and access issues.

Ovarian cancer is another cancer women can face

The symptoms of ovarian cancer can be subtle and mimic benign disease which is why three out of four women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed with advanced disease. Symptoms can include abdominal discomfort and swelling, often referred to as bloating. There might be change in bowel habit, indigestion or feeling full early.

It is a challenge to diagnose this disease early as there is at present no effective screening and more support for research in this area is needed. Yet the disease is curable if detected early. Charities like the Eve Appeal have done a lot of good work funding research in prevention and early detection.

Try to book your cervical smear test appointment as soon as you get invited. If you missed your last cervical screening, you do not need to wait for a letter.

It’s best to book an appointment when:

  • you’re not on your period – also try to avoid the 2 days before or after you bleed (if you do not have periods, you can book any time)
  • you have finished treatment if you have unusual vaginal discharge or a pelvic infection

To find out more, visit the NHS website now.

Image: Getty

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Hannah Mendelsohn

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