Every year, an estimated 1,800 Australian women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
The vast majority of these are at an advanced stage, as there is currently no early detection test, and symptoms are frequently misdiagnosed or not reported. The only way to definitively diagnose ovarian cancer is by taking a tissue sample during surgery.
Raising awareness won’t save lives. In order to save the lives of Australian women, we need to first fund the innovative research that will find an early detection test, and then focus on widespread adoption.
Currently, only 29% of women diagnosed with advanced-stage ovarian cancer will survive beyond five years. But with an early detection test, that would skyrocket to over 90%.
Stages of ovarian cancer
Ovarian cancer can be classified into four stages, depending on the extent of spread of the disease. Staging requires an operation to obtain tissue samples, which are then examined under a microscope.
Cancer is limited to the ovaries only.
One or both ovaries are affected, as well as other pelvic tissues.
One or both ovaries are affected. The cancer is also in the abdominal cavity outside of the pelvis, or there is cancer in pelvic lymph nodes, around the aorta, or in the groin.
One or both ovaries are affected, with spread to distant organs such as the liver or lung.
Early detection research will save lives
"Women will have a better survival rate and outcome when they are diagnosed at an early stage of the disease. The ultimate goal of my research is working towards an early detection test for ovarian cancer which is something that everyone women deserves."
- Dr Noor Lokman, ovarian cancer researcher
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Current diagnosis methods
There is no screening or early detection test available for ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer is usually detected by a combination of several tests and examinations, including those listed below. The final diagnosis always requires the pathological analysis of a tissue sample.
A general check up, including an internal pelvic examination.
A full blood count may be done, as well as a measure of the blood protein CA 125, which is often raised in women with ovarian cancer. CA125 is a protein found in the blood and can be produced by ovarian cancer cells. However, there are other causes for raised CA125 levels such as menstruation, endometriosis or ovarian cysts.
Half of all women with early stage ovarian cancer do not have elevated CA125 levels. The CA125 test is more reliable in postmenopausal women. It is for these reasons CA125 is not recommended as a screening test for women with no symptoms. (Source: Cancer Council)
Other special ‘tumour markers’ may be tested for, but some tumours will not have elevations of these markers and the type of marker depends on the type of tumour.
Ovarian cancer is usually identified by ultrasound or computed tomography (CT) of the abdomen and pelvis, and the CT scene can see if the cancer has spread throughout the body. It should be noted that this is not a definitive diagnosis, and will still require tissue sample collection.
A tissue biopsy is required to diagnose ovarian cancer. This is either done image guided (by ultrasound or CT) or by surgery. The sample is sent to a pathology laboratory where it is analysed under the microscope.
Current treatment methods
A gynaecological oncologist—a gynaecologist specialised in treating cancers affecting the female reproductive organs—will discuss the best treatment options with patients on a case-by-case basis.
However, the most common treatment methods include either surgery, chemotherapy, or radiotherapy, or a combination of these methods.
What is ovarian cancer? Signs & Symptoms