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Ovarian cancer diagnosed too late for too many Victorian women

Wednesday 30 September, 2015

Figures released today show that five-year survival rates for Victorian women diagnosed with ovarian cancer decline drastically as women age, with the survival rate for women aged over 75 being just 18 percent.

This is a stark contrast compared to the five-year survival rate for women diagnosed under the age of 45, which is 73 percent. The staggering disparity is likely due to older women being diagnosed with later stage or more aggressive forms of ovarian cancer with poorer prognoses occurring at that time of life. 

Overall, survival rates among Victorian women with ovarian cancer have seen little improvement. Five-year survival for ovarian cancer is now 42 percent – up from 38 percent two decades ago.

Medical oncologist and researcher Associate Professor Clare Scott said the reasons ovarian cancer is often not detected at an early and easily treatable stage are complex.

“In fact, describing ovarian cancers as being ‘early stage’ doesn't mean that the cancer has been caught ‘early’ in time, but that the cancer has not acquired the ability to spread to surrounding or distant organs in the body, which are otherwise known as ’advanced’ or late stage. Some ovarian cancers spread very slowly indeed and those women have a high chance of survival.

“Unfortunately, most high-grade lethal ovarian cancers have the ability to spread quite quickly, before causing symptoms – explaining why it is hard to catch those cancers at an early stage. This is why it is so urgent for us to develop new screening tests based on molecular changes released into the body by the cancerous cells,” A/Professor Scott explained.

Difficult to detect vague symptoms

Unlike other women’s cancers such as breast and cervical cancer, where survival rates have increased due to screening programs and awareness of symptoms, early stage ovarian cancers rarely cause symptoms.

“Most ovarian cancers present at a later, more advanced stage with vague and non-specific symptoms, which makes it hard to diagnose. My advice to women is that if you have any symptoms that persist, then you should insist on seeing your doctor,” A/Professor Scott said.

“We have a lot of work to do in identifying a new test or technology that can pick up even the most aggressive ovarian cancers at an early stage when they are most easily cured, such as when cancer cells are confined to the fallopian tubes and have not yet spread to the ovaries.”

There were 323 cases of ovarian cancer diagnosed in Victoria in 2014, the second most common gynaecological cancer after uterine cancer.  

For women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer at a young age, the side effects and survivorship issues are complex and multi-dimensional.

Ovarian cancer survivor Violetta Hartley was diagnosed when she was just 42 years old, newly married and trying to start a family.

“My symptoms were very vague and at first I thought I might be pregnant,” Violetta said.

“After eventually being diagnosed with a tumour the size of a grapefruit on my ovary and an aggressive form of ovarian cancer, I was faced with the reality that I would never have children after the chemotherapy put me into early menopause.”

“Although my support network was solid, facing cancer and coming to terms with these issues meant it was a scary and confusing time. I learnt to be stronger than I ever thought I could be.”

Spend a night in to support women with cancer

Cancer Council Victoria CEO Todd Harper said the Victorian Cancer Registry data on ovarian cancer had been released to mark the start of October, a month when women's cancers are firmly on the agenda.

"During October we invite everyone to spend a Night In to raise funds and awareness for women's cancers, such as breast and gynaecological cancers, such as ovarian.

"We are asking Victorians to get involved by hosting a Girls’ Night In which encourages women to host a night in with their girlfriends during October to raise funds for women's cancers. Funds raised go towards our research, prevention programs, and support services.

“With the help of thousands of Girls’ Night In hosts we have raised more than $10 million dollars in the past 10 years in Victoria” Mr Harper said.

“Girls’ Night In provides an easy and fun way to have a real impact on women’s cancers. The beauty of Girls’ Night In is that you can make your event whatever you want it to be, whilst knowing you are making a tangible difference to Victorian women affected by cancer.”

To get involved, simply register to host an event in October, invite your girlfriends over for a night in and ask them to donate what they would have spent on a night out. All funds raised will go towards the women’s cancer projects that need it most.

Register online or call 1300 65 65 85 to become a Girls’ Night In host.