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Wednesday, 8 February 2017
Page: 273


Senator POLLEY (Tasmania) (12:55): I rise to speak about ovarian cancer, something that I am extremely passionate about. Unfortunately, this year 1,550 Australian women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer and, of these, 1,200 will be tragically taken from us. In daily numbers, four women will be diagnosed and three women will die from ovarian cancer.

In Australia, time has shown that the number of deaths from ovarian cancer has increased from 460 in 1968 to nearly three times that number in 2017. Sadly, only 43 out of 100 women diagnosed with ovarian cancer survive after five years. The mortality rate for this disease is extremely high, as ovarian cancers are highly aggressive and especially difficult to treat, and consequently generally carry a poor prognosis. Ovarian cancer remains a silent killer, with two-thirds of women diagnosed in the advanced stage of the disease. A new test for ovarian cancer would be an amazing breakthrough, because there is currently no clear way to detect the disease at an early stage. Early detection is the key to survivability.

Ovarian cancer is the most lethal gynaecological malignancy in Australian women and carries a very poor prognosis. It is often diagnosed at an advanced stage when the tumour has spread beyond the ovary and, despite efforts to develop better screening processes, more than eighty percent of ovarian cancers have spread beyond the ovary prior to diagnosis. Ovarian tumours do not only consist exclusively of cancer cells but contain a complex mix of other cell types that makes treatment a very complicated process. Current research has shown that these other cells in solid tumours are able to interact with cancer cells, influencing their behaviour to make them even more aggressive.

Currently, there is no screening test to detect early ovarian cancer. Most women have advanced disease when they are diagnosed. In advanced ovarian cancer, cancer cells have spread in the bloodstream or lymphatic system to other areas of the pelvis, or to tissues and organs outside the pelvis. Greater understanding of how ovarian cancers develop and new therapies are urgently needed. Treatment is complicated and, depending on the stage and progression of the disease, radical surgery is usually performed to remove the cancer, followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Targeted therapy can be used with medicines that are designed to specifically attack cancer cells without harming normal cells. These types of medicines affect the way that cancer cells grow, divide, repair themselves or interact with other cells. Despite all the treatment regimes, ovarian cancer can recur after treatment. The cancer can re-present in the pelvis or anywhere else in the body.

It can be difficult to diagnose ovarian cancer because the symptoms are ones that many women will have from time to time, and they are often symptoms of less serious and more common health problems. But we do know that ovarian cancer is not a silent disease. Women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer report four types of symptoms most frequently: abdominal or pelvic pain; increased abdominal size or persistent abdominal bloating; the constant need go to the bathroom, sometimes urgently; and feeling full after eating a small amount. If you experience any of these symptoms, if they are new for you and you have experienced them multiple times during a four-week period, go to your GP. With a greater awareness and understanding of the symptoms of ovarian cancer, women can seek medical treatment at an earlier stage, significantly increasing their chance of survival.

As any person with ovarian cancer will tell you, any cancer diagnosis also impacts family members and friends. Sometimes the complex feelings and lifestyle changes caused by cancer and its treatment become as overwhelming for others in your life as they are for you. Cancer has the greatest effect on marriages and other long-term partnerships. After a cancer diagnosis both individuals may experience sadness, anxiety, anger or even hopelessness.

It is an illness that consumes families, and in Australia one woman dies every 10 hours from ovarian cancer. The key to changing this statistic and giving women with ovarian cancer a better long-term outlook is early detection. It is very clear that the most effective way of identifying and combating ovarian cancer is through screening and genetic marker testing. It is critical that research be funded adequately to develop diagnostic detection screening tests for ovarian cancer. Early diagnosis is critical in combating ovarian cancer, allowing women to be treated in the first stages of the cancer. This will certainly increase survivability for women.

Researchers are working hard to learn more about ovarian cancer. They are looking at how you can prevent it and the best ways to deliver treatment and provide care to people diagnosed with these diseases. Some good news is that researchers have identified a specific BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation in up to 20 per cent of women with ovarian cancer. What this means is that the drug olaparib can be utilised. This drug is not a cure for the cancer but can delay the reoccurrence of the disease while preserving a good quality of life for women with advanced ovarian cancer with the BRCA gene mutation.

Before 2016, a small number of Australian women had accessed olaparib through clinical trials and compassionate access schemes. Since January 2016, when olaparib was approved by Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration as a treatment for women with BRCA-mutated advanced ovarian cancer, those women who could afford it were able to access the drug for $13,500 for six months of treatment. Thankfully, that drug has been listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme as of 1 February 2017. The PBS listing means that women can now access the drug for a maximum of $38 a month. This is the most significant development in 30 years for treating advanced ovarian cancer. Treatment options for women with ovarian cancer really have not changed much since the 1980s. This new class of anti-cancer drugs, while not a cure, is a promising indication that further new and improved therapies can and will be found

The real life experiences of many women battling ovarian cancer are often not told. Gayle Doyle, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2013, was given access to olaparib through a compassionate access scheme in December 2014. Gayle says it has improved her quality of life after months of chemotherapy. 'Feeling healthy and being in a positive state of mind is everything when you're fighting ovarian cancer,' Ms Doyle said. 'That's a hard thing to achieve when your body has been battered by chemotherapy, especially when the disease returned so soon after the initial round of treatment. With olaparib, I have hope. I will be celebrating our daughter's wedding in eight weeks. Two years ago I had grave doubts concerning my survival; therefore, this joyful occasion is extra wonderful for our family.'

Thanks must also go to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee for reviewing and considering the position statement of Ovarian Cancer Australia, which called upon the Australian Government to facilitate affordable access to much-needed new treatments. I am very proud of the women, including Gayle, who were supported by Ovarian Cancer Australia to attend a patient hearing to discuss the value of the drug to them and their families.

None the less, it is the continuing responsibility of this government to provide more funding to support research in the early diagnosis and treatment of ovarian cancer. It is also mandatory for this government to provide the necessary medical research infrastructure and services to combat this disease and accelerate diagnosis and treatment.

For the month of February I encourage all members and senators to help raise awareness of this deadly disease and to encourage everyone in their community to 'know, ask, act'. That is, to know the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer, ask for medical advice if you do have any of these symptoms, and act to improve the lives of women living with ovarian cancer. Please remember that the whole month of February is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.