Cambridgeshire survivor warns how easily ovarian cancer symptoms can be mistaken for menopause

  • Watch a report by ITV Anglia's Sophie Wiggins

A woman diagnosed with ovarian cancer has warned how closely the symptoms can mirror the menopause.

Melanie Newman, from Soham in Cambridgeshire, was stunned with the diagnosis and told ITV News Anglia how she had felt right "really fit and well, with no obvious symptoms" right up to the moment she was told she had cancer.

She was diagnosed in 2018, after going to see her GP because of abdominal pain.

Despite feeling "a little bit out of sorts", she had "put it down to menopause."

The Ovarian cancer trial is being run by Cancer Research UK (CRUK) Cambridge Centre. Credit: ITV News Anglia

She recalled: "[I was] sitting in that room being told 'we can see this mass around your pelvis area, but also there's a node on your pancreas and it's in your lymph nodes as well', and I was just thinking 'when are you going to stop?'"

She said she had been aware of ovarian cancer, but any minimal symptoms she had noticed she had chalked up to the menopause.

"I'd never really heard of it and certainly didn't know what the symptoms were, and I was going through menopause so any potential symptoms could be ignored."

Ms Newman is taking part in a pioneering research trial into ovarian cancer at the Cancer Research UK (CRUK) Cambridge Centre.

Results from the study are now helping to shape future treatments in a more tailored way thanks to the detailed information that has been gathered.

Ms Newman said: "Thanks to the research, the trials and the studies that I've been exposed to, that I am where I am, I can't thank them enough. I am so fortunate that everything has come together for me at the right time. I'm so grateful."

Fiona Barve from Saffron Walden was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2017. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Ms Newman added: "One thing that I didn't fully appreciate was that each cancer is different and personalised medicine can mean that you have a higher probability of succeeding in your treatment."

"In my case, my genetic makeup meant the prognosis is much better on a particular regime of drugs, which is partly why I am clear at the moment."

Fiona Barve, from Saffron Walden in Essex, has also been involved in the study.

She received her ovarian cancer diagnosis in 2017 when she was working full time as a teacher.

She went to her GP after feeling unwell on holiday. Within a week she had had a blood test and a scan and was told she needed surgery.

"I was stage four and it is the worst you can get and it was quite a shock. I had chemo and full surgery," she said.

"Most of the symptoms vary from woman to woman, you can have discomfort and bloating which many people see in the menopause."

Two years on from her diagnosis, Ms Barve was given the all-clear from cancer.

"As a result of being able to use the data, more women will be able to benefit from that. I think trying to bring it all together as they are doing right now is really important," she said.

Pioneering research

The Ovarian Cancer Research Programme at Cancer Research UK (CRUK) in Cambridge brings together a range of complex medical information in one place to give more unique treatment plans.

Prof James Brenton from CRUK's Cambridge Institute and Centre is leading the research.

What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?

Warning signs of ovarian cancer to watch out for

The NHS list of symptoms warn they can be difficult to spot, especially in the early stages of the illness.

The health service explains the symptoms can be missed as they are similar to less serious conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or commonly experience symptoms, such as PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome).

Main symptoms

The most common symptoms of ovarian cancer, according to the NHS are:

  • feeling constantly bloated

  • a swollen tummy

  • discomfort in your tummy or pelvic area

  • feeling full quickly when eating, or loss of appetite

  • needing to pee more often or more urgently than usual

Other symptoms

Other symptoms of ovarian cancer can include:

  • persistent indigestion or feeling sick

  • pain during sex

  • a change in your bowel habits

  • back pain

  • feeling tired all the time

  • unintentional weight loss.

Back to top

When you should see a doctor

The NHS says you should speak to a GP about your concerns if:

  • you have been feeling bloated, particularly more than 12 times a month

  • you have other symptoms of ovarian cancer that will not go away – especially if you're over 50 or have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer, as you may be at a higher risk

The NHS advice also reassures that while It's unlikely you have cancer, it is best to check as GPs can carry out simple tests to check for ovarian cancer.

It also emphasises to keep vigilant, and if have already seen a GP and your symptoms continue or even get worse, you should then return to the doctor to explain rather than dismiss the symptoms.

Back to top

Who is at risk of ovarian cancer?

The NHS explains that a number of factors can increase your risk of ovarian cancer, and warns people in certain categories should make sure they are well armed with knowledge.

Here are some potential factors that can increase risk of a diagnosis:

  • Age - about 8 in every 10 women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are over 50, but some rare types of ovarian cancer can happen in younger women.

  • Family history and genes - You're also more likely to get ovarian cancer if a close relative (particularly a mother or sister) has had it. If you have inherited a faulty version of a gene called BRCA1 or BRCA2, this increases your risk of developing both ovarian and breast cancer. You can ask your doctor for advice about whether you need to check for BRCA1/BRCA2.However the NHS says research shows around 1 in 10 ovarian cancer cases are actually linked to these genes.

  • Endometriosis - There is some evidence to suggest this painful condition can also increase risk for ovarian cancer, the NHS says.

  • What about HRT? The NHS says at this time the evidence over whether Hormone Replacement Therapy, usually used during the menopause, is conflicting and unclear. The risk is believed to be small.

Need more advice?

Back to top

He said of the study participants: "Every blood test they've done; every scan; every appointment, monitoring their own tumour, every contribution to reviewing and improving the science proposals to understand what they are suffering from... These amazing contributions all bring us closer to overcoming ovarian cancer, not just in Cambridge, but all over the UK and the rest of the world.

"Ovarian cancer is a complex disease with poor outcomes [and that] hasn't really changed for 20 years." 

Professors James Brenton (seen on the right) led the research at the CRUK Cambridge Centre. Credit: ITV News Anglia

The women involved in the study now meet virtually several times a month, offering each other support with their own experiences helping to frame and refine research questions.

How the study is helping ovarian cancer patients

The research is starting to help inform clinical decisions about ovarian cancer by finding the best time to have chemotherapy and surgery, and identifying when patients are not going to benefit, meaning they can be switched to a trial or a new treatment that will work better.

The cure rate for women with ovarian cancer is very low.

Only 43% of women in England survive five years beyond their ovarian cancer diagnosis, compared to 85% for breast cancer.