Family doctors are being urged to carry out blood tests on women suspected of having ovarian cancer in an effort to improve survival rates for the disease dubbed the "silent killer".
Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer in women with around 6,800 women diagnosed with the disease every year in the UK. But of these women, nearly two thirds, or 65%, will not live beyond five years of their diagnosis.
A blood test costing around £20 is being recommended for use by GPs for detecting whether the disease is likely to be present as part of new guidelines issued by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice).
The organisation said the test was already available on the NHS but offering it sooner and in primary care could give women a greater chance of survival by speeding up diagnosis and treatment.
Sean Duffy, a consultant gynaecologist at St James's University Hospital, Leeds, and chairman of the Nice group that drew up the guidelines, urged a greater awareness of the key symptoms of ovarian cancer. He said these included persistent abdominal bloating, feeling full in spite of only having a small amount to eat, pelvic or abdominal pain and needing to urinate urgently or more frequently.
Nice is recommending that GPs offer women, particularly those over 50 years old, the blood test designed to measure the level of a protein called CA125 in the blood if they experience these symptoms on a regular basis.
"If the symptoms are persistent, don't wait, act," he urged women. "We are promoting the blood test to get women on the right cancer pathway as soon as possible. The symptoms as described can be vague, but if they are persistent they should not be ignored."
The blood test is currently used by hospital specialists for women with suspected ovarian cancer. Charles Redman, a consultant gynaecological oncologist and developer of the guidelines, said earlier diagnosis would result in more speedy treatment for women and hopefully save lives.
Care services minister Paul Burstow welcomed the Nice guidance. He said: "The coalition Government has been clear that we want to improve cancer survival rates so that they are amongst the best in Europe - the earlier cancer is identified, the more likely treatment is to be successful.
"We are committing over £450 million of funding to achieve early diagnosis over the next four years. The money will give GPs increased access to key diagnostic tests including chest X-ray to support the earlier diagnosis of lung cancer, and non-obstetric ultrasound to support the diagnosis of ovarian cancer."