Each year, between 1,300 and 1,500 Australian women receive a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. The prognosis is not favourable – according to Cancer Australia, only 43% of these women will survive. Of all cancers that affect women exclusively, ovarian cancer has the poorest survival rate, making this disease a national tragedy in need of funding and research.
However, the news is not all bad – changes are afoot, with diagnosis and treatment regimens finally moving forward, and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare showing that fatality rates are slowly declining.
What is Ovarian Cancer Australia?
Also known as OCA, this organisation fights for education, awareness and progress when it comes to this deadly cancer. It was founded by Australian Olympic swimming champion Nicole Livingstone and her sister Karen following the passing of their mother and aunt from the disease. The OCA also has the active support of Simon Lee, a founding director, and comedian Lynda Gibson. They are all passionate advocates for the cause, and stress that four Australian women receive a diagnosis of ovarian cancer every day, and another three will die from it.
Hard work is paying off
The OCA initiated a National Action Plan for Ovarian Cancer Research in 2014, responding to the pressing need for a change in early detection and treatment options. Throughout this period and the three decades preceding it, Professor Ian Jacobs, a former cancer surgeon, has been working on an improved detection system that will assist with early diagnosis, and therefore an improved survival rate. Last year, he published the result of his new screening trial. His test identifies a protein in the blood that is found in most women eventually diagnosed with ovarian cancer, with tests showing positive results in women prior to developing symptoms. This is double the previous rate.
Get in early
The OCA tells us that around three quarters of Australian women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are already at an advanced stage. This makes the cancer extremely difficult to treat, with surgery and chemotherapy being the first line options, sometimes followed by radiotherapy. We know the terrible statistic about the survival rate, but an early diagnosis changes this figure dramatically – as many as 80% of women diagnosed in the earliest stages will survive the standard measurement of five years. This is why it’s so very important to know the early warning signs. The OCA tells us to look out for:
- Pelvic pain
- Abdominal pain
- Bloating or an unexplained increase in the girth of your abdomen
- The feeling of needing to urinate often or without warning
- Regular feelings of fullness, even after small amounts of food
As you can see, these symptoms are vague and may have multiple causes (some of which can be found here), but it’s not worth being complacent – Jane Hill, CEO of Ovarian Cancer Australia, stresses that “if these symptoms are new for women and they experience one or more of them persistently over a four-week period, they should consult their GP”.
Jane Hill explains the importance of your genetic makeup and family history: “… OCA is also encouraging Australians to know their family history and genetic risk of ovarian cancer, with one in five occurrences of ovarian cancer being an inherited form of the disease”.
“This tends to be as a result of an inherited faulty gene – the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations”. By now, most women are aware of these genes due to the extensive publicity of Angelina Jolie’s positive genetic testing.
Can health policy holders get screened with their health insurance?
Unfortunately, little exists in the way of rebates for genetic testing, though according to Dr Katherine Neilson, Director of Research and Advocacy at Ovarian Cancer Australia, this depends on individual insurance policies. Dr Neilson states that “Private health insurers do not subsidise testing sought in outpatient services. They generally provide a subsidy only if genetic testing is required as part of a patient’s treatment regime when admitted into hospital and only if MBS also provides a rebate for the test”.
Key insurance issues that have been raised over recent years are the effects that having a genetic test may have on insurance policies:
- Private health insurance premiums are not impacted by genetic test results;
- Underwritten life insurance products such as life, disability, trauma, business and bank loans may be impacted by a genetic test result ; and
Under the law an applicant is required to disclose to the insurer any pre-existing health conditions that might be medically relevant to their policy.
There is certainly some way to go before women diagnosed with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene have better options. There is a further battle ahead for improving the survival rate of those women who receive a diagnosis, but they can be assured that dedicated researchers are making progress. “We rely on our fundraising community to continue to deliver our awareness, support, advocacy and research programs, says Jane Hill. “In fact, OCA is the only organisation that provides direct support to those living with ovarian cancer – that is, the women experiencing the disease as well as their loved ones – through support groups, phone support, online resources and more.“