Ramsey Street sign from Channel 5's 'Neighbours'

What can soaps do for symptoms awareness?

The BBC’s EastEnders and Channel 5’s Neighbours are both featuring ovarian cancer storylines this year, and we’ve been keeping up as they unfold.

In this blog, our Information and Support Manager, Katie Salt, discusses mainstream representation of ovarian cancer and what it means for symptoms awareness.

Ovarian cancer doesn’t often get screen time on popular soaps, so we’ve been hooked on the two storylines this year – and we’re not the only ones. Eve Morey has played Sonya Rebecchi on Neighbours for a decade, so there was quite a reaction from fans of the show when her ovarian cancer diagnosis and departure from the show were announced.

Then, a few weeks ago, we learned that EastEnders’ Jean Slater (Gillian Wright) would face an ovarian cancer diagnosis too. While any coverage of ovarian cancer goes some way to raising awareness, we kept a close watch to see exactly how the soaps decided to approach diagnosis.

Persistent bloating, feeling full quickly and/or loss of appetite, abdominal (tummy) pain, and urinary symptoms (needing to wee more urgently or more often) are the most common ovarian cancer symptoms. But not all women experience these in the same way, and there can be other warning signs, such as fatigue (feeling very tired) and changes in your bowel habit (diarrhoea or constipation). 

Over the last few months, Sonya’s character has been suffering from low energy and recurring stomach pains, but doctors thought that this was a result of the unlikely poisoning attempt she faced earlier in the year. Although this exact situation is (fortunately) unusual, what is very common is for women to put symptoms like these down to other factors such as getting older or going through the menopause. 

In an episode of Neighbours that aired at the end of January, Sonya collapsed and was taken to hospital, where she listed her symptoms for her GP and friend Karl. She says, "So I’ve had some bloating, and that can be painful, and that was probably the worst that it was this morning. I’ve had difficulty with bowel movements, which is annoying because I’ve been eating cleaner than I normally do to try and flush out the toxins."

Signs and symptoms like bloating that could indicate ovarian cancer are often downplayed. Although not everyone has a poisoning incident to blame like Sonya does, we do have a tendency to push aside concerns about changes to our bodies. Sonya also brushes off her low energy levels as a normal side effect of being a parent and mentions changes to her diet in relation to her bowel symptoms.

Many women will tell us they blamed the stress of parenting or caring for an older relative for their symptoms up until the time of diagnosis, and many will try changing their diet before going to their GP. When we did some research on women’s knowledge of persistent bloating last year, women told us they were much more likely to do something with their diet than see a doctor if they were concerned about persistent bloating.

While Sonya’s diagnosis is more unusual because she is a younger woman, EastEnders’ Jean is of the age where ovarian cancer is most common (over the age of 50). This storyline is still unfolding, as Jean hasn’t actually been diagnosed yet, but the show has already highlighted the importance of symptoms awareness.

Jean has been suffering from bloating and stomach pains, and another character has commented that her issues may be down to the menopause. Passing symptoms off as the menopause is an incredibly common experience we hear from older women, and it’s really beneficial to see it flagged in a primetime show as popular as this one.

Doctors have told Sonya that her symptoms could be down to IBS, another one of the most common misdiagnoses of ovarian cancer. Following her diagnosis, Neighbours has begun to touch on topics like fertility concerns and telling children about cancer – important issues that younger women with ovarian cancer will be familiar with. 

Unfortunately, we already know that Neighbours’ Sonya will die from her ovarian cancer. She was diagnosed at Stage IV, when treatment is more difficult because the cancer has spread. Sonya’s experience is all part of a fictional soap storyline, but we know for a fact that ovarian cancer is easier to treat when it is diagnosed at the earliest stage. This is why symptoms awareness is so vital, and why we’re so glad to see it promoted on primetime television.

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