A new roadmap for the treatment of ovarian cancer will fundamentally change the way the disease is treated in an attempt to improve low survival rates that are akin to what one expert describes as a "death sentence".
The national plan for ovarian cancer research, which was launched in Melbourne on Sunday, brings together research, strategies and organisations and is a world first in detection, treatment and prevention of the disease, which kills 1000 women out of 1400 diagnoses in Australia each year. Just 43 out of every 100 women are still alive five years after diagnosis.
The plan includes new information suggesting the disease has multiple sources rather than a single source, going some way towards explaining why treatments have proved hit-and-miss. The disease's survival rate has not improved in recent years, a marked difference from other cancers such as breast, bowel and prostate, which have all reduced mortality rates in the past five years.
Alison Amos, the chief executive of Ovarian Cancer Australia which led the development of the plan, said that until now, there had been no clear pathway for treatment of the disease.
"It's a disease where there isn't very much hope at this point in time," she said.
"Women deserve and are demanding better than this. This is an urgent need; women are being diagnosed today and tomorrow and are still being offered treatment options that haven't changed in two decades. That's not good enough."
By linking the latest research – such as the finding that other cancer drugs may help some subsets of ovarian cancer – to funding and practice, the plan aims to improve quality of life and survival rates so that "maybe one day, a diagnosis of ovarian cancer is not seen as a death sentence, in a similar way to how we've made strides in other cancers".
Ms Amos is meeting leaders of ovarian cancer charities in Canada, the United States and Britain in the next few weeks and hopes a global masterplan and international partnerships may emerge from the Australian initiative, unveiled at the International Gynecologic Cancer Society meeting.
Ann Maree Mulders, an ovarian cancer patient from Leichhardt, said the plan "gives hope".
In June, surgeons removed an 11-centimetre ovarian tumour from Ms Mulders, 41, a mother of two young sons.
"I went into this huge process of tests, scans, waiting, terrifying appointments, surgery and medication," she said.
The rarity of her cancer meant that she was forced to make decisions over her treatment without a wealth of information to utilise . She eventually had extensive surgery, a full hysterectomy and three rounds of chemotherapy. Her cancer has not spread, thanks to early detection of the disease.
"I hope this plan will help women and treatment teams know exactly what's going to work best," she said.
"What you really want is to feel confident that all the brains are working together and that all of the research that needs to be done is funded to give you the best chance of survival. Because it's really scary."
– Ovarian cancer has the lowest survival rate of any women's cancer and has a five-year survival rate, well below the average for all cancers.
– Each year, 1400 Australian women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and more than 1000 will die from the disease; that's one woman every eight hours.
– Each day in Australia, four women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and three will die from the disease.
– Ovarian cancer most commonly affects women aged over 50 who have been through menopause; however, the disease can affect women of all ages.
– There is no early detection test for ovarian cancer. The best way of detecting the disease is to know and recognise the symptoms which most commonly include: abdominal or pelvic pain, increased abdominal size or persistent abdominal bloating, the need to urinate often or urgently, or feeling full after eating a small amount.
– If diagnosed early, the majority of women can survive. Unfortunately, the majority of women are diagnosed with advanced stages of the disease.
– In Australia, the overall five-year survival rate for women diagnosed with ovarian cancer is 43 per cent. In comparison, the overall five-year survival rate for women diagnosed with breast cancer is 89 per cent.
– Genetics and family history are responsible for at least 15 per cent of ovarian cancers.