Everybody bloats. But what happens when your bloated stomach doesn’t seem to be disappearing and you’re not even eating any more than usual?

Persistent bloating is a cancer symptom which many women are unaware of. In fact, fewer than one in five women (17%) would book an urgent GP appointment if they were experiencing it, according to a poll by Target Ovarian Cancer.

In contrast, with other cancer symptoms – such as an unexplained lump or a mole that has changed shape – more than 50% of women would get to their GP within a week.

The charity has warned that lives are at risk because women are not getting urgent cancer symptoms checked during the pandemic.

Della Ogunleye, 59, from south London, experienced persistent bloating for a few months before she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Della at her first chemo treatment.

“At first I didn’t think it was serious,” she tells HuffPost UK. “I self-diagnosed the bloating and thought it was something I was eating. I certainly didn’t think it could be cancer. I did put it off for a while, but then things got worse. I started getting really tired and the bloating wasn’t going down – that’s really not like me, so I knew I had to see the GP.”

Ogunleye visited her GP three times – “the first two they just thought it was indigestion and constipation, and they told me to go and get some prune juice and Gaviscon,” she recalls. “Looking back, I wish they’d taken the bloating seriously too.”

The third time she visited the GP, her doctor did a blood test to check for a substance called CA125, which is produced by some ovarian cancer cells. A high level of CA125 can often be a sign of ovarian cancer – and Ogunleye was found to have elevated levels.

“My treatment happened quickly,” she says. “I saw a specialist and started chemo straight away.”

Persistent bloating could be a sign of cancer

Currently, two thirds of women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer late. Sadly, it’s often when the cancer has spread and is much harder to treat.

If diagnosed at the earliest stage, 93% of people will survive for five years or more. But when diagnosed at the most advanced stage, just 13% will survive.

Persistent bloating is quite a vague term and it can be hard to explain what it might look and feel like. According to the Eve Appeal, your stomach may feel and look puffy, swollen and often quite hard. It might also feel like you need to pass wind or go to the toilet more often; or like you’ve eaten something that doesn’t agree with you. If you feel and/or look bloated for three weeks or more, you should see your doctor, the charity advises.

Dr Alison Wint, GP and clinical lead for cancer at NHS Bristol, North Somerset & South Gloucestershire CCG, said: “Cancer is not going away just because of Covid-19.

Possible ovarian cancer symptoms

Several symptoms of ovarian cancer might not initially seem untoward, but if you experience any of them, you should get them checked out.

These are:

  • Persistent bloating (rather than bloating that comes and goes)
  • Feeling full quickly and/or loss of appetite
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain 
  • Urinary symptoms such as needing to wee more urgently or more often than usual)
  • Occasionally there can be other symptoms like changes in bowel habit (eg. diarrhoea or constipation), extreme fatigue and unexplained weight loss.
  • Any bleeding after the menopause should always be investigated by a GP. 

“It’s as important as ever to come forward with urgent cancer symptoms,” said Dr Wint. “Take it seriously and talk to your GP.”

Annwen Jones, chief executive of Target Ovarian Cancer, said: “It is absolutely vital that women know persistent bloating needs to be checked out by a GP. 

“The pandemic can make it hard to put ourselves first, and people are worried about putting pressure on the NHS. But getting ovarian cancer symptoms checked out promptly and starting treatment quickly makes all the difference.”

The Eve Appeal advises that if you’ve had to see your GP on more than three occasions for the symptoms above, and haven’t been referred to a specialist, ask for a referral.

“I want women to know that persistent bloating that doesn’t go away can be something serious,” says Ogunleye.

“It’s always better to get it checked out. If you’re worried, go to your GP.”

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