Why every woman should know about this simple blood test that can detect ovarian cancer

When Katie Wilkins was a student at Cardiff University in 2003, she would frequent her doctors with shooting pains in her stomach, each time being sent away with a different solution.

“One morning, when I can barely climb out of bed, my housemates take me to A&E and I’m admitted to hospital. Turns out it was neither an infection nor period pain, but instead two borderline ovarian cysts – one the size of an orange, the other a grapefruit (or so I’m reliably informed afterwards),” Katie recalls, and she had them removed that summer.

Fast-forward 17 years and in April 2020, the shooting pains started again.

“Because of my medical history, I know a CA125 blood test, a blood test which checks for raised levels of a protein called CA125, is the main indicator [for ovarian cancer], and I make sure this is taken, with a referral for a scan. Thankfully no antibiotics or paracetamol suggested this time,” Katie continues.

“Within a week, I’m lying on the bed at the radiography clinic, knowing immediately what’s going on inside. The radiographer’s face said everything. The cysts are back… But the C-word still never crosses my mind.”

Katie is told that she will need to have both of her ovaries removed, which would quell her desire to have a family. So, she undergoes IVF as part of a fertility preservation treatment and less than a week later she’s in London ready for surgery.

“A few weeks later, we’re back at The Royal Marsden for a follow up and my results. I never hear those fateful words so many others receive: ‘you have cancer’. Instead, my doctor shows me pictures, and talks me through what they found in the various biopsies and organs they’d removed in surgery. In most places, the disease was borderline (not cancerous). But in a few places, there was evidence of Low Grade Serous Ovarian Cancer – a rare variant of ovarian cancer, often found in younger women,” Katie said.

Because of these findings, Katie had to undergo several rounds of chemotherapy before being given the all-clear in January this year.

Because of Katie’s history with ovarian cysts, she knew exactly what to ask for when going to her doctor with similar pains. This allowed her to catch the cancer in its early stages – many women aren’t as lucky.

In the UK alone, 7,500 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year, most diagnosed at a late stage where the survival rate is at its lowest. Charity The Lady Garden Foundation says the pandemic has only increased delays in being diagnosed as many assume that the GP is open for urgent appointments only and do not recognise symptoms as urgent.

What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?
While symptoms of ovarian cancer can be vague, the main symptoms are:

Feeling bloated
Feeling full quickly or a loss of appetite
Pain or discomfort in the lower stomach area or back
Needing to pass urine more often or more urgently
Changes in bowel habits
Weight gain or weight loss
Unexplained or extreme tiredness
If you have any of the symptoms listed above, particularly if they are persistent or not normal for you, book in an appointment with your GP.

If you suspect you may have any of the signs of ovarian cancer, ask for a CA125 test. This looks for the CA125 protein in the blood which is a marker of ovarian cancer.

The normal value of CA125 in the blood is less than 35 so a higher result can increase the likelihood of ovarian cancer. While the tests aren’t 100% accurate, it can be a useful indicator.

John Butler, Consultant Gyanecologist and LGF Medical Director, says: “CA125 is a test that your GP may order if you have signs or symptoms of Ovarian Cancer and is a very routine blood test done in the NHS. I’m delighted to see The Lady Garden Foundation spread the word of this simple test which can help to improve the odds of Ovarian Cancer being caught earlier and improving survival.”