In the month of October, staff member Melanie ran a campaign for Frocktober (https://www.frocktober.org.au/) and raised over $1400. What is Frocktober? Frocktober is an annual event run by the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation (OCRF; https://www.ocrf.com.au/) to raise much needed funds (research is severely underfunded) and awareness about ovarian cancer. It began in 2007 with 8 women sitting around a table at a 24-hour diner in Geelong, and raised $200. It has grown significantly to be an annual event whereby anyone can start a campaign during the month of October.
Each day in October Melanie wore a dress, uploading it along with a fact about ovarian cancer to Facebook. On some days, her friend Tanya posed in dresses previously worn by their mutual friend Tam (who changed her name to Ocean), who died of ovarian cancer in 2018. As is a common story with ovarian cancer, Tam was unaware she was experiencing symptoms and wasn’t diagnosed until she was stage IV. She died less than 6 months later, leaving behind 2 very young children and a devastated circle of friends and family.
Frocktober is about preventing these kinds of tragedies from occurring. In Australia, one woman dies every 8 hours from ovarian cancer.
Frocktober display in the WHWS waiting area
Most Australians are unaware of the symptoms of ovarian cancer, and can easily dismiss them as gastrointestinal problems or common female complains – even doctors do this. The symptoms of ovarian cancer are often vague and the warning signs associated with the disease rarely set off alarm bells. The symptoms include:
- Discomfort or pain in the abdomen or pelvis
- Feeling swollen or bloated
- Appetite loss or feeling full quickly
- Unexplained changes in weight
Can you see how easily it is to dismiss these symptoms and put them down to general life busyness, hormones, parenting, burn out, stress etc? If you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, and especially if you know you have either the BRAC1 or BRAC2 gene, you have an increased risk of between 15-20% of developing ovarian cancer. Risk factors aside from genes include:
- Reproductive history
- Having endometriosis
- Hormonal factors
Basically being female and having ovaries puts you at potential risk. Whilst this does sound scary, a key message is to know and trust yourself. If you have any suspicions, go to your GP. If they dismiss you, go to another doctor (or another) who will listen to you. It’s your body and you’re the expert on yourself. Keep asking questions (take a support person with you if that will help) until you can get checked out. Unfortunately there is no early detection test for ovarian cancer (this is why more funding is desperately needed!).
Many people believe that a Pap smear will detect ovarian cancer – this is wrong. Likewise, many people also think that the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine will protect them from ovarian cancer – this is also incorrect. Both a Pap smear and the HPV vaccine detect and prevent cervical cancer, NOT ovarian cancer. Unfortunately there is no early detection test for ovarian cancer. This fact contributes to which is why it is the most lethal of all gynecological cancers; because it is often not detected until it is advanced. Only 20-25% of women diagnosed at a late stage will survive more than 5 years. However if a woman is diagnosed at Stage 1 (when the cancer is localized) then her survival rates are over 90%.
Proportionally, more women die from ovarian cancer than breast cancer, because it is usually diagnosed in its advanced stages.
Ovarian cancer research is poorly funded, and less than 2% of Australian Government research grants in the past two years have been dedicated to ovarian cancer. The same drugs have been used to treat ovarian cancer since 1992, and while there have been some developments in ovarian cancer, the same cannot be said for treatments. Recent research has found that most ovarian cancers actually start in the Fallopian tubes.
Staff frocked up for Frocktober
All of this information about ovarian cancer can be daunting. We have a long way to go towards increasing not only awareness of the symptoms, but also – and most importantly – funding research towards the development of an inexpensive and accurate early detection test for ovarian cancer (like Pap smears and mammograms). The take home message is to know your body and listen to your friends who report any symptoms which you believe are suspicious. Spread the word about the symptoms and speak up about the need for more funding; contact your local MP or start a campaign of your own!