Throughout March, Target Ovarian Cancer are encouraging us to get up close and familiar with symptoms of a disease which kills 4,300 women every year in the UK. In the first of a series of features, Sam Wonfor talks to Susan Calman, one of the charity’s ambassadors.
By the end of a phone call with Susan Calman, we’ve found common ground in our recent medical histories. In the past 12 months, we have both visited GPs with worried faces and both come away reassured and satisfied.
“Despite my father being an oncologist, I’m appalling about going to the doctor,” admits the 40-year-old comic. “I feel quite nervous and embarrassed. I’m pretty repressed really, but I thought I had to go and get checked out, to go in and say ‘I’m worried about this, please pay attention to me’.”
Susan has recently become an ambassador for charity Target Ovarian Cancer which is leading the charge in raising awareness of the symptoms of the disease, especially throughout the awareness month of March.
“I initially got involved with them about three years ago, simply because the organisers were putting together a comedy gig in tribute to Linda Smith, a wonderful comic who died from ovarian cancer [in 2006, at the age of 48].
“As somebody who had listened to The News Quiz on Radio 4 for many years, Linda Smith was a real role model for me and many others who did that.
“To be honest, I didn’t realise at that point that she’d had ovarian cancer. It was only through doing the gig that I began to find out more about what the disease was and what the symptoms were.
“I suppose I knew a lot more about breast cancer or some of the other cancers,” continues Calman, whose dad, former Chief Medical Officer of Scotland, England and Wales, Sir Kenneth Calman, is also an ambassador for Target Ovarian Cancer.
“I’m not suggesting you go up to a friend and say, ‘are you bloated?’, but I don’t feel like ovarian cancer is something we talk about.”
“When I went to my GP, I remembered someone at the charity once telling me to ‘get an answer to a question’ – and I did. I think sometimes a lot of women don’t want to bother anybody, but it’s something you need to be confident about. If you are worried, then don’t wait. If there is something wrong and it’s caught early then there’s a much better chance that they can do something about it.”
I tell Calman this was exactly my train of thought when I went to the doctor last year because I was suffering from regular pelvic pain I hadn’t experienced before, general knackeredness and some bloating.
Having written an article about ovarian cancer a couple of years earlier, I knew these could all be symptoms of the disease, which kills 12 women every day in the UK. I also knew an ovarian cancer diagnosis often comes too late because the nature of the symptoms mean it can be dismissed as other, less serious conditions.
Nearly a third of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed in Accident and Emergency.
Though there’s not one test for ovarian cancer, there are several things that can be looked at. Together these can either rule it out or underpin a diagnosis. In my case, I was offered three: an internal examination, a CA125 blood test and an ultrasound scan, the results of which combined to reassure both me and my GP that whatever was causing my symptoms, it wasn’t ovarian cancer.
“That’s great that you got immediate attention and were listened to,” says Susan. “Being armed with information before you go into see your GP is really important and that’s what the TOC campaign is really trying to push.
“I hope people will take the campaign in a way that empowers them to go in to see their doctor, knowing what the symptoms are and feeling able to say they are concerned about the following things, and they would be grateful if the following tests could be carried out.
“And if you don’t get the answers that satisfy you, go and find another doctor. I don’t want to sound like I’m down on GPs because I’m not. I think they do a wonderful job. But they see hundreds and hundreds of people every day.
“Women should be just as aware of the symptoms of ovarian cancer as they are about breast cancer. It needs to be talked about more among women.
“I talk to my friends about checking our breasts and all of those kinds of things. We all know about checking for lumps because those campaigns have been very high profile and have had great success.
“I’m not suggesting you go up to a friend and say, ‘are you bloated?’,” she laughs, “but I don’t feel like ovarian cancer is something we talk about. Passing on the information about symptoms to friends would be a really good thing.”
As part of her work with Target Ovarian Cancer, Susan will also be working specifically to raise awareness within the lesbian community. “Until recently I didn’t realise that gay women have a greater chance of getting ovarian cancer because your risks are reduced if you have taken or take birth control pills or have been a breastfeeding mother. Of course a lot of gay women do have children, but many of them don’t.
“Increasing awareness in the lesbian community of something they may not know they have a greater chance of getting, is something I wanted to work with the charity on in the future. If by getting involved, I can in some small part increase awareness of it across the board, then I’m more than happy to do so.
“Losing someone like Linda Smith so early is a very public reminder of what can happen. She was extraordinary and is greatly missed by many, many people. Letting more women know what to look out for and giving them the confidence not to sit in silence and get their questions answered is really important.
“You can survive ovarian cancer. You can absolutely survive it – it’s not all doom and gloom. But it’s so important to get that early diagnosis. It makes all the difference in the world.”
For more information on Target Ovarian Cancer, visit www.targetovariancancer.org.uk.
• A woman in the UK has a 2% chance of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in her lifetime.
• 7,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and 4,300 are lost to the disease every year in the UK.
• The five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer is just 43%. If diagnosed at the earliest stage, up to 90% of women would survive five years or more.
• UK survival rates are amongst the lowest in Europe. Matching the European survival rate would save up to 500 lives per year.
• Almost a third of women face delays of six months or more in getting a correct diagnosis from first visiting their GP
• Only 3% of women in the UK are very confident at spotting a symptom of ovarian cancer.
• 47% of women often mistakenly think the cervical screening programme would detect ovarian cancer.
• 32% of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed through Accident and Emergency
• The symptoms of ovarian cancer include persistent pelvic or abdominal pain; increased abdominal size/persistent bloating (not bloating that comes and goes); difficulty eating or feeling full quickly; needing to wee more urgently and/or more often than usual. Other symptoms can include unexpected weight loss, change in bowel habits, and extreme fatigue.