Today marks the second annual World Ovarian Cancer Day to raise awareness of the disease that is often called the ‘silent killer’. The symptoms of ovarian cancer are difficult for medical professionals to discern. The disease devastates and can spread long before women receive an accurate diagnosis.
Statistics relating to ovarian cancer make for stark reading. Every year nearly a quarter of a million women globally are diagnosed. Every year 140,000 women die as a result of the disease. 70% of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer die within five years. According to the National Cancer Registry 376 new cases present themselves every year in Ireland. In terms of incidence rates, we rank fourth highest of the thirty countries surveyed. In addition to all that we also have the highest mortality rate in Europe.
These are scary facts. Why the hell don’t we know more about ovarian cancer?
Various organisations are trying to address this knowledge gap by raising funds for research and information campaigns, including Irish groups Ovacare, the Emer Casey Foundation and Supporting Ovarian Cancer Knowledge (SOCK). Last year saw the establishment of a World Ovarian Cancer Day, May 8th, and today ovarian cancer charities from around the world ask people to wear teal ribbons or nail polish to support awareness of ovarian cancer. Some campaigns have even employed variations on the tagline ‘Not all cancers are pink’, in reference to the awareness around breast cancer.
One of the main reasons ovarian cancer isn’t as well known as other female cancers is because the symptoms are incredibly vague, thus its late stage diagnosis reputation. Ovacare are promoting the BEAT approach when you fear a gastrointestinal issue might be more than an upset stomach. When you have Bloating, are experiencing difficulty Eating and have Abdominal pain for three weeks or more Talk to your GP. For more details about symptoms see here. SOCK’s current nationwide campaign is well underway with SOCK information leaflets available in doctors’ surgeries throughout Ireland. These leaflets encourage women to ‘Know your body, Know the symptoms’.
One of the main difficulties associated with ovarian cancer is the lack of an early detection or screening test, like with say cervical cancer. Various studies around the world are offering some semblance of hope, with a US study measuring protein levels in blood showing some promising results. In Australia the White Shirt Campaign has been afoot since 2000 in a bid to find an early detection test. Run by clothing store Witchery and offering a variety of choices for him and her, this campaign has raised $4.9 million for the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation.
Genetic testing is also one of the biggest weapons against the disease and is recommended to women with a family history of breast and ovarian cancer. It is estimated that 1 in 300 women have mutations on their BRCA 1 and 2 genes. These mutations indicate the increased likelihood of a woman developing breast and ovarian cancer. Make sure you tell your doctor about a history of ovarian or breast cancer in the family as you may be eligible for a referral through the HSE. Meanwhile the private route is expensive with the Mater offering specialised testing. Actress and humanitarian Angelina Jolie is one of the most famous women to have undergone this test, writing about her resulting decision to have a double mastectomy in light of her testing positive for the BRCA 1 gene in a powerful op-ed for the New York Times. Her results indicated there was an 87 percent risk of her developing breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer.
After World Ovarian Cancer Day what can happen to increase awareness? Sharon O’Toole, PhD, the Director and Chair Medical Panel of Ovacare thinks “a nationwide campaign on the symptoms would be a great thing, similar to the Be Clear on Cancer campaign in the UK. Ovarian cancer needs a higher profile as its associated mortality is so high.” Be Clear on Cancer is an umbrella campaign that the UK Department of Health developed with acclaimed advertising agency M&C Saatchi to draw attention to bowel, lung and breast cancer among others, with a specialised and targeted focus on ovarian cancer being piloted in north west England this spring.
In the meantime Ovacare have teamed up with patron Miriam O’Callaghan for this video and are asking people to spread awareness of the disease and day. See ovariancancerday.org for more information.
Jeanne Sutton @jeannedesutun