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Monday, 9 February 2015
Page: 180

Ms KING (Ballarat) (11:41): Last year, ovarian cancer claimed the life of a very good friend of mine, Betty Leahy. Bette was an extraordinary woman who provided financial counselling services at child and family services before she retired. She mentored me as a young social worker and as a friend when I worked there. You could not meet a kinder and more gentle woman than Bette. It was my great fortune to have had such a person come in to my life just as I started my career.

Yet Betty carried a burden that would be beyond many of us. Before she succumbed to her own illness, cancer had tragically taken the lives of both her husband and her daughter, who died in her 30s. Shortly before she died, Bette asked me to come and see her in St John of God Ballarat Hospital. She particularly wanted to ask me to use my position as Labor shadow health spokesperson and to use the position that all of us hold here in this place to champion the cause for more research into ovarian cancer and to raise awareness of the disease which so cruelly cut her life short, as well as that of so many other Australian women. As Labor's health spokesperson, I particularly want to elevate this cause. Though I particularly do want to acknowledge Betty, this is not just for Betty but also for all Australian women who are stricken by ovarian cancer every year. I am very grateful to the member for Shortland for providing this opportunity to do so.

February, as this motion recognises, is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Ovarian cancer has not, it is fair to say, achieved the same level of public recognition as other cancers, such as the magnificent work that has been done in recent years to raise awareness of breast cancer. Yet ovarian cancer is an insidious disease which still claims the lives of more half of the woman who contract it. It is the second most commonly diagnosed women's cancer in Australia, with around 1,400 new cases each year. That number is rising with around 1,000 women dying from the disease every year. It accounts for around five per cent of all cancer deaths in Australia. While, like most cancers, there have been great improvements in the mortality rate in recent years, the five-year survival rate, as we have heard, is still less than 45 per cent.

The average age of ovarian cancer diagnosis is around 64, which is the age at which former Senator Jeannie Ferris was first diagnosed before she, sadly, succumbed two years later. But it can also affect much younger women. Perhaps most notable in this country is the case of one of our great athletes, Raelene Boyle, who was in her 40s when she was diagnosed with both breast cancer and then a few years later with ovarian cancer. Raelene is proof of how early detection is crucial to surviving ovarian cancer and why, therefore, we must do much more to raise awareness of the symptoms, which could be the difference between life and death. The Commonwealth Games medallist and three-time Olympic silver medallist was only diagnosed when an injury revealed an early stage, 12-centimetre mass on her ovary, which was then removed. The check-up 16 months later revealed the mass had grown again, and that was removed again.

Most women do not find out that they have ovarian cancer until the disease is at its advanced stages. By then it is too late for most, with a much lower survival rate. For the few who are diagnosed early, such as Raelene, the chances of beating ovarian cancer are, of course, much greater. As Raelene later said, the symptoms are so minor—having a distended tummy, a sore back or bleeding—that women generally just put up with these things. But if you think there might be something wrong, if you are not sure, go and get it checked out. The symptoms, we know, are hard to spot, but early detection is vital to survival. It is crucial that we do more to raise awareness of this disease so that these warning signs of ovarian cancer become as well known as the Pap smear or the breast check.

This motion recognises, in particular, that we need to highlight those symptoms. Through Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month and the many Morning Teals—the member the Canberra will, I think, be hosting one in this place again, or there will be events happening here—we must raise awareness of those symptoms: abdominal or pelvic pain, increased abdominal size or persistent abdominal bloating, the need to urinate often or urgently, and difficulty eating or feeling full quickly. It is also very important to raise the importance of research, to raise funds for research, to ensure that the strategic research plan that the ovarian cancer association has developed is actually enacted in full, and that we have bipartisan support to make sure that that research funding does flow to ovarian cancer.