Each year, 1,580 Australian women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The disease can affect one or both ovaries and often has no symptoms in the early stages, earning its name as the ‘silent killer’.
Unfortunately, there isn’t currently a single test used to diagnose ovarian cancer. While tests such the CA-125 blood test or transvaginal ultrasounds provide indicators, surgery is the only definitive way to diagnose ovarian cancer. It’s for this reason two out of three patients are diagnosed at advanced stages.
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Leading gynaecological oncologist, researcher and Cherish Women’s Cancer Foundation co-founder Professor Andreas Obermair says women with the disease often have similar stories of diagnosis and detail their frustration at the lack of an effective early detection test for ovarian cancer.
“Due to the aggressive nature of the disease, women often go from initial diagnosis to treatment and surgery in incredibly short periods of time which is stressful and frightening not only for them but for their loved ones,” Professor Obermair said.
“Ovarian cancer, if diagnosed early, say stage one or two, requires the removal of the tubes and ovaries while testing for the spread of cancer. Whereas later stage ovarian cancer requires surgical removal of as much cancer as possible which may include the uterus, tubes, ovaries, omentum, bowel, spleen, diaphragm and abdominal peritoneum.
“However the majority of advanced ovarian cancer patients will relapse making monitoring of the CA-125 protein, which is produced by ovarian cancer cells and shed into the blood stream where it can be detected, incredibly important,” he said.
During such an incredibly stressful and emotional time, friends and family are often left wondering what they can do to be supportive. Professor Andreas Obermair shares three ways you can support a loved one diagnosed with ovarian cancer:
1. Be educated, but don’t be too hard on yourself.
For many, it’s a natural instinct to want to be informed and to read everything you can find when a loved one is diagnosed with ovarian cancer, but make sure you’re doing it in a useful and healthy way.
Read credible sources of information and Australian-based websites, medical journals, or articles backed up by Ovarian Cancer Australia. This also applies to reading real patient stories, try to read from a reputable source and know that there is support out there.
Remember that no one expects you to become an expert overnight! Instead, ask questions and learn as you go with your loved one.
2. Help a loved one track their tumour marker results.
CA-125 levels are commonly referred to as a ‘tumour marker’ and are monitored through regular blood tests before, during and after treatment to track cancer progress. In fact, many women require lifelong tumour marker testing if their risk of recurrence is high.
Ask your loved one if you can share in this part of the journey together. You could offer to help your loved one get started with tracking their results using an app, or organise a regular catch up to input tumour marker results as a way to encourage open communication and to show your support in a practical way.
3. Don’t let cancer take over everything in your relationship.
One of the most difficult things to do, but perhaps the most important, will be to keep things as normal as possible.
At the end of the day your loved one is the same person and one of the most common things you hear is that cancer doesn’t define them. Try not to let every conversation revolve around cancer – at first it may be hard to do, but make a goal to each day discuss something else. Meet up for coffee and talk about the day’s news, it’s likely that they’ll cherish the time just being themselves with you.