FOR years, ovarian cancer has been known as the 'silent killer'.

But Alison Farmer, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer 16 years ago, when she was 40, wants to get the message out that this simply is not true.

She emphasises that it does have symptoms and that women who experience any of them should insist on seeing a specialist.

It was in 2001 that Alison went to her doctor as she was experiencing some mild symptoms, including lower abdominal pain.

"The doctor said 'women get that', but I knew that wasn't true and said I wanted it investigated, so I was referred to a gynaecologist," says Alison from Highfield, Southampton.

Luckily for Alison, she is a psycho-oncology nurse specialist, and was confident that her symptoms needed further investigation.

"Because I'm a nurse, I am aware of what is normal and what is not, so I persisted," she says.

"I had it in the back of my mind that it could be cancer, although the gynaecologist thought it was a benign cyst at first, as I was young to have ovarian cancer," she says.

"For years, ovarian cancer has been called 'the silent killer' which has been really unhelpful, because when women have felt symptoms, they have ignored them, because of the perception that there aren't any symptoms", adds Alison, who is the current face of Target Ovarian Cancer's current Take Ovar campaign.

"It's very important to dispel that myth. Women need to be assertive. When they have symptoms that persist they should ask their GP for investigations.

"GPs only see one or two ovarian cancer cases every five years or so, so the symptoms may not be at the forefront of their minds."

Alison's cancer was detected particularly early, thanks to her vigilance, which meant she had less extensive surgery than might otherwise have been the case.

"I was very upset when I was diagnosed. I knew I'd have to have surgery and chemotherapy.

The treatment was gruelling, but I was very grateful I could have it. Chemotherapy is very important and it saves a lot of lives, particularly with early cancers."

Alison's treatment ended early in 2002 and she found that as well as the physical toll that it had taken, her confidence had also taken a knock.

"I went skiing and it was a bit of a surprise because I was more tired than I'd expected to be and I wasn't as fearless on the slopes.

"It took me a couple of years after my treatment had finished to feel that I'd got back to normal.

"Lots of people have what's known as 'chemo brain', when your short term memory is affected. I give lectures as part of my work and I've always memorised them, but I found myself having to read them."

A new, and happier, chapter in Alison's life was marked when she fell pregnant, three years after her diagnosis.

"I had always wanted to have children," she says.

"The main thing that I thought when I was told that I had ovarian cancer wasn't that I was going to die, it was that I wouldn't be able to have children. That's an issue for a lot of women, and it's one of the reasons why early detection is so important, because it results in less extensive surgery."

"Having my daughter helped me move on enormously," she adds.

Before becoming the face of the Target Ovarian Cancer campaign, Alison says that many of her friends didn't realise that she had had ovarian cancer, and she very rarely shares her experience in her work.

But she feels that it is important to speak out, to help raise awareness about the disease and the symptoms, and to encourage women to be assertive about having their symptoms taken seriously.

"Women see gynaecologists routinely in the USA. I'd say to women, with anything abnormal, ask to see a gynaecologist.

"If it's not normal for you, get it checked out."

What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?

• Persistent bloating – not bloating that comes and goes

• Feeling full quickly and/or loss of appetite

• Pelvic or abdominal pain (that's your tummy and below)

• Urinary symptoms (needing to wee more urgently or more often than usual)

Occasionally there can be other symptoms:

• Changes in bowel habit (eg diarrhoea or constipation)

• Extreme fatigue (feeling very tired)

• Unexplained weight loss

Any bleeding after the menopause should always be investigated by a GP.

Symptoms will be:

• Frequent – they usually happen more than 12 times a month

• Persistent – they don’t go away

• New – they are not normal for you