More than 50% of women diagnosed with this disease won't live longer than 5 years.


by Clare Rawlinson, ABC

Low survival rates for ovarian cancer are being targeted in a sweeping reform of research into the disease in Australia.

Ovarian Cancer Australia has announced a landmark national action plan, following in the footsteps of breast cancer researchers. They hope the plan will see the same gains in survival rates and treatment options that similar strategies have made for other cancers.

The plan aims to diversify clinical trials and tailor treatment to specific subgroups of the disease that have only recently been discovered.

“What we know about ovarian cancer now is there are many more subgroups than we previously thought – that’s come from understanding the gene wiring of the cancers,” researcher Professor Clare Scott said.

Cancer subgroups have recently been discovered by researchers. (Image via Thinkstock)


An initial investment of $1 million between Ovarian Cancer Australia and the Peter McCallum Cancer Centre has been put towards establishing new clinical trials that target the unique molecular characteristics of each cancer subgroup.

"We do think from other examples in oncology, that having targeted treatment means the chance of really controlling the disease for years, if not longer, will be finally in our grasp," Professor Scott said.

Ovarian cancer the biggest killer among women's cancers

About 1,400 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year and only 43 per cent will live beyond five years after diagnosis. Of the 14,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer each year, 89 per cent will survive beyond the next five years.

Ovarian Cancer Australia chief executive Alison Amos said the difference in survival rates was the results of strong investment into breast cancer research that had raised the disease's profile.

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"This (plan) is about stimulating further investment and further stepwise change because we really need to start to see some change to those statistics and provide hope for those women now and in the future," Ms Amos said.

Professor Scott said the one approach should enable researchers to offer women better treatment and outcomes in the next five to 10 years.

"This will change the way we do research and clinical trials from now onwards," she said.

No early detection test a barrier to survival rates

One barrier towards reducing survival rates is that there is no early detection test for ovarian cancer. Unlike having a mammogram, women in the risk category of over-55 are only able to look for suspicious symptoms.


Melbourne teacher and mother of three Julie Morgan was diagnosed with ovarian cancer after she complained to her doctor about abdominal pain. After an ultrasound, her doctor suspected she had benign ovarian cysts and sent her to have a laparoscopy.

"When I went and had the laparoscopy the doctor said 'I didn't take anything out because I found quite a lot of growths in and around your ovaries... they are cancerous'," Ms Morgan said.

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Two weeks later, she had a hysterectomy and six weeks of chemotherapy.

Until a more sophisticated detection test is developed, doctors rely on women like Ms Morgan to report persisting symptoms, including pain, bloating, urinating frequently and feeling full quickly.

"At the moment we have no early detection test," Professor Scott said.

"There is a blood test and internal ultrasound but neither are sensitive enough to pick up ovarian cancer at a time it can be cured. This means women have ongoing symptoms and difficulty of diagnoses - many tell the story of going to a doctor for some months prior to a diagnosis."

Ms Amos said in the meantime treatment could be hugely improved for women under the new national action plan.

"We would hope in the relatively short term it will result in more trials and more options for women diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and in the not too distant future, new treatment options," she said.

This post originally appeared on the ABC and has been republished with full permission.