Every year more than 1,600 women in Australia are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. And it is estimated that more than 1,000 will die from the disease – that’s one woman every eight hours!
If diagnosed early, women have an 80 percent chance of being alive and well five years later. Problem is…there is no early detection test!
An accidental diagnosis: Deborah’s ovarian cancer diagnosis
Deborah Robertson, a mum-of-two, was diagnosed with stage 1 ovarian cancer after feeling ‘off’ for months.
Deborah recalls, “I felt tired, depressed, just generally unwell and sluggish. I had a meeting with my boss… and told her ‘I don’t feel good, I know you will think I am being melodramatic, but I actually feel like I am dying!’ She said I was being dramatic!”
After fainting in the shower, Deborah made an appointment with her GP. “I was having really heavy periods at the time and was thinking [that] if I could cure the heavy periods, all would be good in the world.” Deborah’s GP sent her for an internal scan to check things out. It was discovered she had a tumour on her ovary.
“It was the most traumatic phone call of my life.”
Two doctors looked at Deborah’s scan and told her to book in with her GP the next day. She immediately suspected that something more than heavy periods was the issue.
“I called the doctor the next morning and the nurse spoke to me and actually told me over the phone I had a tumour on my ovary,” Deborah remembers. “It was the most traumatic phone call of my life. She literally said ‘Ok, the doctor will call you later but I can see a tumour on this scan, so I suspect it could be cancer.'”
The facts on ovarian cancer
There’s no glossing over the fact that ovarian cancer is still the deadliest cancer for women. And, according to Ovarian Cancer Australia…
- Every day in Australia, four women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
- Three of those women will die from the disease. Yep, you read that correctly. Three of those four women will die.
- In Australia, the overall five-year survival rate for women diagnosed with ovarian cancer is 45 percent. In comparison, the overall five-year survival rate for women diagnosed with breast cancer is 90 percent.
- If diagnosed in its early stages, women have an 80% chance of being alive and well after five years. Unfortunately, 75 percent of women are diagnosed at an advanced stage, when the cancer has spread and it is difficult to treat successfully.
Raising awareness of ovarian cancer
The biggest issue? Lack of awareness, diagnostic tools and several symptoms that are often brushed off as being caused by something benign.
“Ovarian cancer has little or no symptoms in the early stages and can not show up on imaging or blood tests,” says Professor Orla McNally, Director of Oncology and Dysplasia Associate at The Royal Women’s Hospital, Melbourne.
She explains that, unlike breast and cervical cancer, early detection is a problem. Many women wrongly assume that a pap smear can detect ovarian cancer. It cannot. The only way to detect ovarian cancer is through a trans-vaginal ultrasound or a specialised blood test, which looks for a specific protein.
This protein, called CA-125, is often high in women with ovarian cancer. The problem with these diagnostic methods however is that the cancer is often in an advanced stage by the time it registers on a scan or in a blood test.
“Currently there is no test to detect ovarian cancer in the early stages,” explains Professor McNally. “By the time the symptoms develop, even mild symptoms, the cancer may have spread.”
In Deborah’s case, it was her (unrelated) heavy periods that led to her diagnosis and, quite literally, saved her life. “My ovarian cancer was stage 1 – thank God – and I was incredibly lucky that I went to the doctors regarding the heavy periods as if not, it would not have been found in time,” says Deborah. “It really was luck as heavy periods are NOT a symptom of ovarian cancer, but it is what saved my life.”
Know the symptoms
“My body was definitely telling me something was wrong.”
Ovarian cancer is known as the ‘silent killer’ as many of the symptoms only become obvious in the later stages. However, like Deborah, many women who are diagnosed with the disease recognise that ‘something’ isn’t quite right within their body, even before a formal diagnosis is made.
Four key symptoms can indicate ovarian cancer. It is worth noting that there are plenty of other, non-life threatening, conditions that can cause the same symptoms, but if you are continually experiencing the following, it’s worth chatting with your doctor.
The four key symptoms of ovarian cancer include:
- Abdominal or pelvic pain
- Increased abdominal size or persistent abdominal bloating
- The need to urinate often or urgently
- Feeling full after eating only a small amount
“Women should be aware of any changes in their body and speak to their GP if they experience symptoms such as bloating, abdominal pain or feeling full after small amounts of food,” says Professor McNally.
Women should also be aware of the increased risk factors for ovarian cancer. These are:
- Genetic links
- A family history of ovarian cancer
- Lifestyle factors including being overweight and smoking
- Gynecological conditions such as endometriosis
Diagnosis and treatment
The only definitive way to diagnose ovarian cancer is via a biopsy. If your GP is concerned, you may be sent to a specialist gynecologist for further testing. Treatment options can vary, depending on each individual case. Typically, ovarian cancer is treated through a combination of surgery and chemotherapy.
In Deborah’s case, a radical hysterectomy was the best course of action. Her womb, uterus, ovaries, and cervix were all removed during the six-hour procedure. A sweep was also done to assess whether the cancer had spread (thankfully it had not).
There are no specific methods for avoiding ovarian cancer. Serious measures may be recommended for women identified as being at high risk. A hysterectomy is often the standard course of action.
“For women who are at high risk of ovarian cancer, such as carrying the BRCA 1 or 2 genetic mutation, we recommend having surgery to remove their ovaries and fallopian tubes after they have finished their family,” explains Professor McNally.
She urges women who are concerned to seek professional advice. “Even a young woman with the symptoms mentioned should seek an opinion from an expert if they are concerned.”
We’ll leave the last word to Deborah who has successfully beaten ovarian cancer and continues to enjoy good health. ” If you don’t get your car serviced it will break down – we are the same.”
For more information about ovarian cancer, including the Afternoon teal fundraising initiative, visit: Ovarian Cancer Australia