GPs across the UK should be offering women who present with potential symptoms of ovarian cancer a blood test to help speed up detection of the disease and improve the chances of treatment success.

According to the first ever guidelines for ovarian cancer, put together by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, initial investigation should be carried out in general practice rather than at hospital to speed up the treatment pathway for patients.

Around 6,800 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the UK every year, and the disease is often referred to as a "silent killer" because as symptoms are vague it is often diagnosed in later stages when the chances of treatment success are lower.

Although chemotherapy and surgery can be effective in treating the disease, the prognosis for patients is much better the earlier it is picked up.

"Far too many women are being referred to hospitals for suspected ovarian cancer once their disease is already at an advanced stage," said consultant gynaecological oncologist and guideline developer Charles Redman. "This is frustrating as the stage of the disease at its diagnosis is crucial in determining which treatments can then be offered,” he stressed.

NICE is recommending that women with symptoms such as bloating, feeling full, lower abdominal pain and frequent urination, should, particularly if they are over the age of 50, be offered a blood test known as CA125 - which cost just £20 each - by their family doctor.

Better outlook

If the results suggests that ovarian cancer may have developed then they should be seen by a cancer specialist in hospital within two weeks.

"This test is already available on the NHS, but by offering it sooner and in primary care, we hope that it will lead to earlier diagnoses and treatment,” explained Fergus Macbeth, Director of the Centre for Clinical Practice at the Institute.

The guidance has been welcomed by Cancer Research UK and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, whose president Tony Falconer said "early therapeutic intervention with surgery and chemotherapy should improve the prognosis for women".