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Bishop's Stortford teacher Fiona Barvé backs research into blood test which helped save her life from ovarian cancer

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Science teacher Fiona Barvé is back in the classroom at St Mary's Catholic School in Bishop's Stortford after a blood test helped her beat cancer.

The 56-year-old is sharing her story after Cambridge researchers discovered a simple check by her GP can predict ovarian cancer much better than previously thought.

Their report, published in PLOS Medicine, gives hope to thousands of women diagnosed with the disease each year.

Fiona Barvé was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer after she went to her GP in 2017 complaining of abdominal pains
Fiona Barvé was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer after she went to her GP in 2017 complaining of abdominal pains

Each year in the UK around 7,400 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer – the sixth most common in females in the UK – and around 4,100 die.

Long-term survival rates have changed relatively little over recent decades because the condition is often detected only once it is advanced and spread, making treatment more difficult.

The research, funded by Cancer Research UK and Government agency National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), shows that the CA125 blood test could also help pick up other types of the disease.

In 2017, Fiona went to her GP complaining of abdominal pains. She was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer and immediately underwent surgery and a course of chemotherapy.

Since March 2019 she has been free of the disease and said the CA125 blood test helped save her life because doctors referred her for appropriate treatment quickly.

"I hadn't heard of the CA125 blood test before my GP suggested that I have one," she said. "Although I was diagnosed at a late stage, the test helped identify the problem.

"I was fortunate my surgery – which I received within four weeks of being diagnosed – and chemotherapy worked for me. I feel lucky to be around."

The research now shows that an abnormal CA125 result is 12 times more likely to predict ovarian cancer than was previously thought.

Fiona said: "I'd like to see a day when tests like this are routinely used to help more people have their cancer diagnosed early."

Fiona, who is back teaching three days a week, is monitored every three months and continues to have regular CA125 tests.

It looks for a protein in the blood called Cancer Antigen 125 (CA125). GPs use it to help determine if a patient needs further tests such as ultrasound.

Dr Garth Funston at the University of Cambridge studied more than 50,000 women who had a CA125 blood test with their GP in England.

The study, which is part of the CanTest collaborative, showed for the first time in primary care that CA125 was not only raised in women later diagnosed with ovarian cancer – around 350 women (10%) with CA125 protein levels at or above the cut-off value had the disease – it also found that more than 380 women with an abnormal CA125 result but no ovarian cancer instead had another type such as pancreatic, lung or bowel cancer.

In addition, the study found the proportion of women with an abnormal test who had any cancer was much higher in those aged 50 or over (33%) than those under 50 (6%), suggesting it is a more useful test to use in the over-50s.

Using both age and the level of protein in the blood, the team have developed models that GPs can use to determine the risk of a woman having cancer.

Some 93% of ovarian cancer patients survive for five years or more if diagnosed at the earliest stage 1 compared to just 13% when diagnosed at the latest stage 4.

Dr Jodie Moffat, Cancer Research UK's head of early diagnosis, said: "Ovarian cancer is particularly difficult to diagnose as women often experience symptoms that are difficult to pinpoint or are readily put down to other causes.

"This research reinforces the value of a readily available test. We encourage GPs to use the CA125 test readily – not only may this help to identify more women at an earlier stage of ovarian cancer, but it could also help to identify other cancers too.

"GP surgeries and hospitals are changing the way they do things to keep patients and staff as safe as possible. Although some people are waiting longer than usual for appointments, we urge anyone who has noticed a change in their health to contact their GP, get their symptoms checked and attend any tests their doctor thinks are needed."

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