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Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Page: 342


Senator POLLEY (TasmaniaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (12:45): I rise today to speak about a health issue that is of the utmost importance to each and every woman regardless of their age or their family history and that is ovarian cancer, a disease that affects far too many Australian women. I take this opportunity to speak briefly about the signs and symptoms of the disease so that we can all be more aware of it. I note that there is a motion on the red today relating to Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Most of us were in this place when the late Senator Jeannie Ferris succumbed to ovarian cancer. She was a great advocate for raising awareness. Others in this place are likely to have been touched by this, whether in their family or among their friends or within their community. I sincerely believe that we need to be better equipped, we need more knowledge of the warning signs and symptoms, and women should have these discussions with their friends and families, with their daughters, with their mothers and with their grandmothers.

Ovarian cancer is often a silent disease in its early stages, which means that many women have no symptoms at all or symptoms that are difficult to recognise. Some of the more common symptoms associated with ovarian cancer are unexplai­ned abdominal or pelvic pain, increased abdominal size or persistent abdominal bloating, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, needing to urinate often or urgently and a change in bowel habit. As women in this chamber and those listening would know, many of those things are fairly common symptoms for many women, but the key point that I would make is that the symptoms that precede ovarian cancer are new to you and different for your body. I urge all women to be aware of the changes and to seek advice from their GP if they are concerned.

When it was brought to my attention I was pleased to learn that Ovarian Cancer Austra­lia provides a freely accessible symptoms diary. This is a document that women can use as a tool to follow any symptoms that they are concerned about and to keep track of how they are feeling daily over a four-week period. The diary gives them a documented history they can present to their GP. I have downloaded a copy of it, and it really is very useful. It is easy to use and I urge women in the community to check out the website. That simple document may well be the first step in saving your life.

Unlike many other forms of cancer, ovarian cancer has no population screening, so it is important that as women we take charge of our health, seek help and increase awareness about the symptoms, because we know that early detection and increased awareness is important in winning the fight against ovarian cancer. It is simply a fact of life that some women will have to fight a personal battle with this disease.

What happens if you are diagnosed with ovarian cancer? From recent discussions, I have been assured that there are some fantastic counselling and support groups that have been specifically set up around the country to help those battling ovarian cancer. Last week I met Karen Campbell, a lady who is instrumental in Tasmania in supporting women undergoing this journey of recovery from ovarian cancer and many other forms of cancer. From the discussion, it was reassuring to learn that these support groups play an enormously important role not only during the treatment period but more importantly after the treatment has finished. Those of us who have had cancer in one form or another are constantly living with the knowledge that we have had cancer and there is always the threat that it will return. It is not because our loved ones do not understand, do not care or do not want to hear, but all too often it is only in a support group that we are able to open up and articulate how we are actually feeling without the feeling that we are going to burden our family and friends even further. In the lead-up to treatments and when you go back to your specialist to find out whether the treatment has been successful or whether the cancer has spread to other areas, anxiety can heighten. These support groups are so essential. I commend Karen Campbell and her organisation for the work that they are doing.

In Launceston in northern Tasmania, a regular support group meets at Women's Health North, and in Hobart they meet monthly at the Cancer Council. These support groups provide a vital service for those who have been touched by cancer to meet and talk to others who share a similar experience. I think an experience shared and a burden shared are always lightened. I encourage everyone to visit the Cancer Council of Australia's website to find out where these groups are meeting in their local area. Another form of support for women who have been diagnosed with cancer that it has been so impressive for me to hear about is Look Good…Feel Better. This is an initiative that helps women to regain control of the way they look during their cancer treatment. The Look Good…Feel Better organisation characterises itself by saying:

Look Good…Feel Better is a free community service program dedicated to helping Australians cope with the appearance related side-effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy such as hair loss and changes to the skin.

Cancer treatment, and the ensuing appearance changes, can be a very difficult period of time for many of the thousands diagnosed with cancer each year in Australia.

The aim of the Look Good…Feel Better program is to help cancer patients manage these side-effects and to help restore their appearance and self image.

Chemotherapy can affect the way we look in many different ways, from a change in skin tone or thinning eyelashes to perhaps the most extreme effect, total hair loss. The key message Look Good…Feel Better conveys to women is that these are temporary changes and there is so much that you can do to restore your appearance to something more familiar and similar to the way you normally feel and look. We all know about those days—and I have them—when you do not feel so great and when you look in that dreaded mirror and you think, 'Oh, I look as bad as I feel inside.' So I think anything we can do to help women in this case feel better about themselves and realise that what they are going through is a temporary process with their recovery is very important. That program has helped over 90,000 women already, so I encourage Australian women to keep up with these sorts of programs and be aware that that support is there in your community, because I think it is a great initiative. Its website is www.lgfb.org.au.

The strength of the women who have conquered ovarian cancer was evident to me when I read through their personal stories on the Ovarian Cancer Australia website. The stories are inspiring with their honesty and made me better appreciate the importance of getting the message of ovarian cancer awareness out there. One particular story that really hit home for me was of a women who was initially diagnosed with early menopause. She knew there was something more to it than that and insisted on having further tests. It was later discovered that she had a one-kilogram cyst on her ovary. The message there is: if you do not feel that your GP or your doctor is listening to you and you are not confident in their diagnosis then seek a second opinion. To me, this simply reaffirms the point that each and every one of us knows our body better than anyone else and that we have to be aware of those symptoms.

As I said, the symptoms diary is a great asset and tool for us to document so we can take it to our doctor. As I said earlier—I am repeating myself—it is so important to talk to your daughters, your mother, your nieces or your friends so that they are aware, because, as I said, these symptoms are so common for a lot of women who experience them during their lifetime that we cannot afford to overlook those symptoms. We need to continue to educate the community so that we can have very early intervention, because early intervention is so critical in reducing the number of women who die from this disease. Statistics demonstrate the import­ance of that, particularly now. For instance, there has been an increase from 833 Australians dying from this disease in 1982 to 1,266 in 2007.

It is often assumed that a family history of cancer will be the primary indicator of who will be affected. However, 90 to 95 per cent of ovarian cancer is diagnosed in women who have no family history. Ovarian cancer is considered to be in the early stages when it is still confined to one or both ovaries. As the cancer becomes more advanced it may be found in other pelvic organs, such as the uterus or the fallopian tubes. Advanced stage ovarian cancer occurs when the cancer has spread from the primary site—in this case the ovaries—to other distant sites; it can travel to the liver or the lungs. The prognosis for an individual diagnosed with ovarian cancer depends on what stage it has developed to. We know that the earlier we can intervene the better the outcome is going to be. For individuals who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer still in its early stages and confined to the ovaries, the prognosis is good and suggests that 93 per cent of these patients will still be alive in five years.

The greatest risk factor connected to ovarian cancer is considered to be age. Unfortunately there is nothing we can do about getting older; however, there are a number of other risk factors that are thought to influence an individual's chance of being affected by ovarian cancer. It is important to be aware of these risk factors, which include family history and genetics—this accounts for only around 10 per cent of ovarian cancers, but it is something we should be mindful of—having no or few full-term pregnancies, smoking cigarettes, eating a high-fat diet, and being overweight or obese.

I am very pleased to have been able to speak on this issue here today, because I think it is important to raise the profile of ovarian cancer. We know that breast cancer has had very high public awareness, and I pay full credit to the organisations and public figures that promote that very important battle that we have. Therefore, speaking today about Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, I would encourage those in the chamber and in our communities to visit the Ovarian Cancer Australia website and to get involved in the events this month. We know that 29 February is Teal Ribbon Day for ovarian cancer. We are holding a morning tea here in Parliament House, and there are other functions around the country that are going to be organised. I would encourage people to get involved. Get a few girlfriends together or get your family members together so you can have a discussion and raise awareness and, at the same time, raise some badly needed funds for this important battle. In Tasmania we already have registered four or so events where they are expecting to raise $2,000. Every dollar is so valuable in terms of making people more aware and bringing it to the forefront. So together we can raise the profile of ovarian cancer, we can raise awareness and in turn we can help to decrease the devastating effect that this cancer has on Australian women. I was not involved in the notice of motion, but I would like to put on the record once again that we in this chamber have been personally affected, both indirectly and directly, by people with ovarian cancer. I want to pay credit to Senator Ferris for the work she did. It is nice to know that the hard work she put in has not been forgotten. It is back on the Notice Paper, and I am sure there will be other contributions on this important issue during this month. But it is not just about being aware in February. Ovarian cancer, like all cancers, affects Australians every day of every month. Personally, having the experience of family members with cancer, whether they have good news or bad news, I know it is something they live with every day, so we need to support these networks.