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Tuesday, 28 February 2012
Page: 1101

Senator FISHER (South Australia) (19:56): This month is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and tomorrow is Teal Ribbon Day, a day to raise money for and awareness of ovarian cancer. Today is also five years to the day that a former senator, the late Jeannie Ferris, made her final contribution to the Senate. Her final contribution was a question to the then minister about gynaecological cancer funding, a cause for which she had fought long and hard. At that time—and I see nods from those of you who worked very hard with Jeannie at the time and continue to work hard on this issue—everybody thought and hoped that the late Senator Ferris would be a survivor of ovarian cancer. About two months after her final contribution in the Senate, ovarian cancer took out the late Senator Jeannie Ferris, but it did not take out or stamp out the achievements of her hard work or the achievements of the many others who worked with her and continue to work on this issue to this day.

The day before Jeannie made her final contribution to the Senate, when speaking to the government's response to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee inquiry into gynaecological cancers, entitled Breaking the silence, Jeannie said:

More than anything, this report is an indication that when there was a serious women's health issue and all of us realised that all of our women—never mind what they might do every three years at the ballot box—wanted it dealt with and wanted expert advice and wanted to have a voice, we all got together.

Jeannie was instrumental in getting everybody together. Thanks to the community affairs committee inquiry and Jeannie's then colleagues, some of whom remain in the chamber, people whose lives have been touched by gynaecological cancers got a voice in this chamber and more broadly. Of course, gynaecological cancers are not just about women. They touch families, they touch communities and they touch everybody ultimately.

Jeannie was very proud of a couple of things that she managed to do before she tootled off. When the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee rejected an application for a government subsidy to make Gardasil, the cervical cancer vaccine, available to two million girls and young women, she organised for a letter to be signed by 22 of her then 24 female Senate colleagues which called on the then Minister for Health and Ageing, Tony Abbott, to review his decision, and—hey presto!—the government soon announced that Gardasil would be listed on the PBS.

The other thing of which Jeannie was understandably proud was the $1 million funding that she managed probably to wrestle from, again, health and ageing minister Tony Abbott to establish a new centre for gynaecological cancer. That was in response to the community affairs report Breaking the silence. What are the facts of ovarian cancer? It is the ninth most common cancer diagnosed in Australian women. It is the second most commonly diagnosed gynaecological cancer. Almost 1,500 women are expected to be diagnosed with it in Australia in 2015, and about half of those—that is, about 800 women—die of it each year. One in 79 women will be diagnosed with it before they reach the age of 85. The good news is that the five-year relative survival rate for Australian women has increased significantly from about 33 per cent in 1982-87 to about 40 per cent in 2003-06.

The symptoms are seemingly innocuous, so the ovarian cancer campaign is all about K.I.S.S. With ovarian cancer, that certainly does not stand for 'keep it simple stupid'; it stands for 'know the important symptoms and signs'. These include abdominal or pelvic pain, increased abdominal size or persistent abdominal bloating, needing to urinate often or urgently and difficulty eating or feeling full quickly. Many of these symptoms are experienced by many of us from time to time, but Ovarian Cancer Australia have produced a symptoms diary in which they encourage women to write down their symptoms if they are concerned that they are experiencing many of these symptoms on a regular basis and then to take the diary to their medical practitioner.

It is well known that, happily, most women with these symptoms do not have ovarian cancer. But, if there is no clear reason for the symptoms, its possibility must be considered. The cruel history of this disease is that it is a silent killer—it is not easily detected and it is often detected far too late. That is probably the cruel twist in the disease that resulted in former Senator Ferris being taken from us. There is no detection test, so it is a pretty good idea for women to know the risks. However, recent research has found that only about one-third of women can identify the most common risk factors. Between five and 10 per cent of ovarian cancer sufferers can trace it to a family history, but less than one per cent of women know that they need to look for family history on dad's side as well as mum's side.

The really bad news—which, particularly with cancers, is not uncommon—is that one of the greatest risk factors in disease is age. We cannot do a lot about it—because, happily, we are living longer—but the older we get the higher the risk becomes. About 80 per cent of cases occur in women who are 50 years of age or older. The other factors that can increase women's risks, and these are often risk factors for other illnesses, include: having had no or few full-time pregnancies—that is, never having been pregnant or rarely having carried to term; never having taken the pill or oral contraceptives; smoking, eating a high-fat diet; and being overweight or obese.

We can do far more work to get the message out to the community, but it is encouraging to note that the work continues to be done and that we have come some way in the past five years. For example, on the day of Senator Ferris's final contribution to the Senate five years ago it was Ovarian Cancer Week, but it is now Ovarian Cancer Month. We have reached many milestones since Jeannie's passing, and of that the late Jeannie Ferris would surely be proud.