Many women with ovarian cancer face delays in getting diagnosed, despite reporting symptoms to their GP, researchers warned.

Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer in women, with around 6,800 new cases each year in the UK and 4,300 deaths.

Survival rates are above 70 per cent if it is caught early, but only about one in three women is diagnosed in the early stages.

Now experts writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) are warning that doctors may miss a main symptom of ovarian cancer because it is not included in the current guidance for urgent investigation.

Women reporting a distended abdomen need to be urgently seen for tests to assess if they have the disease, they said.

Yet the UK guidance on urgent referrals say women should be referred only if they experience abnormal bleeding or if they have a palpable mass that is not obviously fibroids.

The research, carried out by experts from the department of community-based medicine at the University of Bristol, involved 212 women from across 39 general practices in Devon.

All were aged over 40 and were compared with more than 1,000 healthy women acting as controls. The researchers analysed the symptoms experienced by the women and found that many had told their GP about them.

"Women with ovarian cancer usually have symptoms and report them to primary care, sometimes months before diagnosis," they said.

"Several recent studies have shown that symptoms are common, though they often go unrecognised by women and doctors. Abdominal pain, abdominal distension, pelvic pain, increased urinary frequency, constipation or diarrhoea, abnormal vaginal bleeding, weight loss, abdominal bloating and fatigue have all been reported."