Around there world, scientists are working hard towards a common goal – to improve the outcomes for women diagnosed with ovarian cancer. So how close are they to an early detection test or more successful treatments?
Associate professor Martin Oehler, director of gynaecological oncology at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, and an Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation board member, says there are major breakthroughs on the horizon for the disease known as “the silent killer”, but admits there’s still a way to go before the holy grail of a blood test is available.
“The big breakthrough we’re looking for is a blood test that detects ovarian cancer in its early stages. Early detection is crucial for saving lives,” he says. “I’m confident this will occur in my lifetime, but it’s probably still 10 or 20 years away.”
The dramatic statistics of this killer disease speak for themselves – every year in Australia about 1200 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, most in an advanced stage of the disease. This is because, Oehler says, the disease has few symptoms in the early stages, and even as it advances the symptoms can be vague and attributed to other conditions.
What women can do
There are measures women can take to help precipitate an early-stage diagnosis, and it’s all based around knowledge and awareness.
Dr Goli Samimi, group leader of ovarian cancer research at Sydney’s Garvan Institute, has spent much of her professional life researching its causes, diagnosis and treatment. She has this advice for women:
Know your risk: Family history is now thought to play a larger part in ovarian cancer, Samimi says. “If you have close relatives who’ve been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, breast cancer, even some colorectal cancers, this can place you at a higher risk. Inform your GP and ask to be referred for genetic counselling.”
Know your body: If you notice changes in your body or have any of the symptoms linked with ovarian cancer (see below), check them out, Samimi says.
Talk to your GP: Many symptoms can be vague, so getting a diagnosis requires vigilance. Both Samimi and Oehler reiterate that if a woman is worried, she has every right to ask her GP for further investigation.
More good news on the science front
Oehler believes he and his team are on to something that may lead to the sought-after blood test, and it hinges on the immune system.
In the past, research has concentrated on finding proteins released by the ovarian tumours into the blood, but this can be like searching for a needle in a haystack, Oehler says. His research started trying to identify specific antibodies the immune system releases when it detects a malignant tumour in the ovaries.
“Immunotherapy is the new era of cancer treatment,” he says. “Once we can identify the specific antibody, we’ll be able to hopefully improve detection and treatment. The highly sensitive technology required for this type of research is being developed.”
Samimi agrees that the future for ovarian cancer research is bright. She and her team are investigating ways to improve treatment outcomes and reduce the chemotherapy resistance often displayed by ovarian cancer tumours.
“Yes, progress is slow,” she says. “There aren’t many women caught in the early stages who are available to be studied, but progress is being made and there will come a time when the outcomes for women with ovarian cancer will be much improved.”
Ovarian cancer at a glance
• 1200 Australian women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer a year, most in the advanced stages. By 2015, diagnoses are expected to rise to 1488 a year.
• One in 90 women will develop ovarian cancer in her lifetime; 6 in 10 of those will be over the age of 60.
• Ovarian cancer is the seventh most common cancer death in Australian women.
• Ovarian cancer is the most common cause of death from a gynaecological cancer.
• Early detection is key – if the cancer is diagnosed and treated early, between 80 and 100 per cent of women will survive for more than five years. This drops to 30 per cent if diagnosis is in advanced stages. In comparison, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer is about 88 per cent.
Source: The Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation (OCRF)
The symptoms of ovarian cancer are generally vague and may not be obvious, but the following signs can occur:
• Vague abdominal pain or pressure.
• Feelings of abdominal fullness, gas, nausea and indigestion that are different to your normal sensations.
• Sudden abdominal swelling, weight gain or bloating.
• Persistent changes in bowel or bladder patterns.
• Low backache or cramps.
• Abnormal vaginal bleeding.
• Pain during intercourse.
• Unexplained weight loss.
The majority of women who experience these early symptoms don’t have cancer. However, it’s important that you seek medical advice if the symptoms persist.