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Thursday, 12 February 2015
Page: 701


Senator POLLEY (Tasmania) (19:11): I am delighted to make a contribution tonight to acknowledge the people who work tirelessly to raise awareness of ovarian cancer. In 2014 alone, almost 1,500 women in Australia and 250,000 women worldwide were diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The mortality rate for this disease is extremely high, with approximately 1,000 of those Australian cases alone resulting in death and only 43 out of 100 women diagnosed still alive after five years. But the cancer does not affect only the women who are diagnosed with it. Behind each of those diagnoses are fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, friends and other loved ones leaving a trail of sadness and loss. It is an illness that devastates families and it is an illness that devastates communities.

New evidence has revealed that the majority of these cancers arise in the fallopian tubes and spread into the ovaries. Most of these types present at an advanced stage and, whilst initial treatment can be effective, relapse is common. The treatment regime for ovarian cancer has changed little in decades. It involves tumour-debulking surgery followed by the administration of platinum- and taxane-based chemotherapy. But platinum-resistant or refractory patients need more treatment options. In recent years, some progress has been made. A monoclonal antibody has been approved in several countries, including Australia, for the treatment of ovarian cancer. However, although a significant improvement in progression-free survival has been demonstrated, there has been no improvement in overall survival rates.

With February being Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, Ovarian Cancer Australia ambassadors actor Gary Sweet and Rugby League player Cameron Smith have called on all Australians, particularly men, to paint their nails the colour teal in a show of solidarity. The aim is to bring people together and to lift awareness among the entire community so that funds can be raised and women can be more vigilant with regard to their health.

With a greater awareness and understanding of the symptoms of ovarian cancer, women can seek medical treatment at an earlier stage. Symptoms such as tiredness, bloating of the abdomen, pelvic and abdominal pain, the constant need to go to the bathroom and the feeling of fullness after very little food can all be mistaken for other illnesses or be ignored altogether. That is why it is important for more adequate resources to be devoted to further research. Leading experts claim that the most effective way of combating ovarian cancer is through improved screening techniques and genetic testing. Therefore, more research into this line of work must be done so that women can avoid the more traumatic chemotherapy or surgical procedures, which are usually unsuccessful.

In the past five years more gains have been made towards the discovery of a cure than in the previous 30 years. But despite these recent advances the current government approved only 15 out of 100 grant applications last year, significantly limiting the speed of progress. One expert claimed that this lack of funding and support has driven many skilled medical staff out of this particular area of research to seek better paid opportunities elsewhere. Those remaining have had to sacrifice their own time in order to adequately work towards a better understanding of the illness and a possible cure. The government's refusal to support telehealth technology in rural communities might also have an effect on the ability of doctors to conduct an early diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

I along with colleagues in this place have campaigned for greater access to the NBN for Tasmanians in remote areas for the purposes of telehealth technology. Access to this technology would have enabled Tasmanian women more easily to present themselves to doctors for consultation, particularly in the more rural and remotes areas not only of Tasmania but across our vast country. It would have given doctors the ability to assess any symptoms and decide whether or not to advise patients to travel to regional centres to seek further treatment. The government must support more research. The government should put more money into research. Those who are advocating about and raising awareness of this important issue still need to do more so that we have the same prominence for ovarian cancer in this country as we do for breast cancer.

But it is not all doom and gloom. Out of the shadows of despair have emerged many stories of human hope that motivate us to seek new treatment and inspire us to search for a cure—stories of people like Christine Bellis. Christine Bellis is a 22 year old from Perth, who had recently been diagnosed with stage 1 ovarian cancer. She had been experiencing a sharp pain in the pelvis for approximately two months, necessitating a trip to the doctor. The doctor sent her for an ultrasound, where they discovered a cyst approximately the size of a tennis ball. The doctors talked about things like cancer and infertility, all of which were incredibly terrifying concepts for a 22-year-old woman. A couple of weeks later she had surgery, but the doctors were unable to remove all of the cysts, as that would have required removing an entire ovary. The doctors then discussed the possibility of conducting a hysterectomy, but that idea was abandoned due to her age and the fact that she did not have children. Lack of fertility became a reality that Christine unfortunately was facing. But with ongoing treatment and support, and the fact that they caught the cancer early, she was one of the lucky ones. With major advances in ovarian cancer slowly emerging, and stories of survival like Christine's, it is imperative for the government to provide the necessary medical infrastructure and services to combat this disease and accelerate research and treatment. These are all fundamental reasons why the government must decide whether economic principles should dictate the health of Australians or whether simple human empathy should prevail.

I would like to encourage those in the chamber, those who are listening and those who read the Hansard that, as women, when you go to your general practitioner, if you are not happy with the advice that is being given to you, you really do need to seek a second opinion. These symptoms are so common that it is so easy for them to be overlooked. Without a shadow of a doubt, when we are talking about ovarian or any other form of cancer the earlier it is detected the better the outcome will be. So I encourage those in the chamber to speak to their family, their friends, their mothers, their daughters and their nieces so that we can ensure that, wherever possible, the earliest detection will lead to better outcome. I strongly urge those on the size of the chamber to reconsider the amount of money that is being put into research for this type of cancer, because without that research, without the dedication of those who do the research, a cure will not be found.

I acknowledge, again, the great effort that is put in by so many to raise awareness of ovarian cancer in this country. I would also like to acknowledge and plug a bipartisan event that will be held here in Parliament House. It is a fundraiser for ovarian cancer, which will be held when we come back, during estimates. I encourage everyone to come along and make a donation, because none of us knows when any one of us or a member of our family could be touched by this deadly cancer. Once again, I urge you to talk about this with your family, your friends, your daughters and your nieces so that they are fully aware, that they seek advice from their doctor about any of these symptoms and that they pursue a second opinion if there is any doubt in their mind.