Story transcripts

Lifesaver: Ovarian Cancer testing

Sunday, March 12, 2006
Reporter: Tara Brown
Producer: Stephen Taylor

This is a story of hope for every woman. A breakthrough we've all been waiting for, one that could change our whole way of thinking about a terrible disease. Until now, ovarian cancer has slipped under the public radar, even though it will kill a thousand Australian women, young and old, this year.

That's because most often it's not detected until it's too late. But now, a simple new test for this insidious cancer is on the way, and it's being developed here in Australia. It's a world first for our scientists and a tribute to the courage of the women who inspired them.

Surgery is always frightening, but Melbourne professor Michael Quinn and his team expect this one to be routine. It's all good news. And it's unlikely to be malignant. Their patient has a twisted ovarian cyst requiring a simple operation. And early in the surgery, it's as they thought — everything looks good.


MICHAEL QUINN: So very much in favour now that this is going to be a benign thing and not a malignant thing, so that's terrific.

TARA BROWN: As a matter of course, they send a sample to the lab. Fifteen minutes later, the call. Professor Quinn gets news he wasn't expecting.

MICHAEL QUINN: Okay, that's fine. I think that's what we were anxious about.

TARA BROWN: The result is something everyone dreads.

MICHAEL QUINN: So it's malignant. Unfortunately this is now a much more serious situation for this lady.

TARA BROWN: It's ovarian cancer and in this moment, everything changes. Routine surgery has become a matter of life and death.

MICHAEL QUINN: If I never see an advanced ovarian cancer again, it will only be too soon. You know, every time you operate on a patient, and there's a possibility of cancer, and you put that knife into the tummy and you open up the tummy and you immediately see there's an advanced ovarian cancer, then your heart sinks.P> TARA BROWN: Ovarian cancer takes lives. It kills one woman every 11 hours. Of those diagnosed with this horrible disease, 85 percent will die. The death rate is so high because most women don't know they have it until it's too late. Healthy, strong, vibrant women like 49-year-old Kerry Hancock.

Are you angry? Are you angry at this disease, this cancer?

KERRY HANCOCK: I think the anger is gone now. I just, I don't know, perhaps I've just learnt that I have to accept it now. And there's just nothing in the world that's going to change it.

TARA BROWN: Four years ago, Kerry could never have guessed what she was facing. Her sore back was diagnosed as advanced ovarian cancer. After surgery and chemotherapy, Kerry thought she had beaten it. But within a year, it had returned. And now it's back for the third time in her spleen, lymph nodes and liver.

KERRY HANCOCK: Unfortunately, Christmas time, it came back again. So, it's disappointing, I'm disappointed in myself.

TARA BROWN: Why are you disappointed in yourself? Because it's come back again. Is this a battle you can win?

KERRY HANCOCK: I hope so. Yeah. Sometimes I'm just tired. But, you know, I have to be strong for my family and friends. You know. Always putting on a really good face all the time, trying to be happy and it is, it's very draining.

MICHAEL QUINN: The impact, not just on their day-to-day living but it's their body image, it's their sexuality, it's their attractiveness. And that's awful. They've got to deal with that as well as the mortality — am I going to die from this? And if I am, when am I going to die? So this is an awful cancer, it really is terrible.

TARA BROWN: What makes this so cruel is if caught early enough, women have a 90 percent chance of surviving ovarian cancer. The problem is, the symptoms are so vague, most sufferers aren't diagnosed until it is too late. They're simply not given a chance.

MICHAEL QUINN: We're not getting earlier because it's a sneaky cancer. It's described as a cancer that whispers. In other words, there's no one symptom a woman gets that says to her, "Hey, there's something wrong with my ovaries." She may have bloating in her tummy, she may have irregularity to her periods, she may feel pressure in her pelvis, she may pass urine more frequently.

TARA BROWN: Women watching this will queue to see their GP because what you described is basically a woman's life.

MICHAEL QUINN: If they do have persistent symptoms — and it's the persistent symptoms, the persistence is important — then they should go and see their family doctor.

TARA BROWN: But sometimes there are no symptoms at all. Last year, 28-year-old Marianne Doyle was delighted to learn she was expecting her second child. A routine ultrasound early in her pregnancy also revealed she had cancer.

MARIANNE DOYLE: I went for a 10-week scan, which was standard. And there was a shadow on the scan and they said, "We think you might be having twins."

TARA BROWN: The shadow was in fact a 10cm tumour on her left ovary.

MARIANNE DOYLE: This white dot here is the heart beat and then this shadow down here off to the side is the tumour.

TARA BROWN: Within a week, Marianne was in surgery having it removed. But there are no guarantees. Lucky seems to be the wrong word to use for your situation. But do you feel lucky?

MARIANNE DOYLE: Yeah, I really do feel lucky because if I hadn't been pregnant, if they hadn't found this, it could have been much, much worse.

TARA BROWN: In April, Marianne will have a Caesarean to deliver her baby and will also have a hysterectomy to stop the cancer from spreading. But of course, it may already have spread.

MARIANNE DOYLE: I'd like another little boy. I worry about passing this on and I think it's terrible, because I would love a little girl, I really would. I would love either. But it is a real worry.

TARA BROWN: At 36, Neona Connolly plays mum to her friends' children. First uterine cancer and then, within a year, ovarian cancer stole her chance to become a parent. How have you come to terms with not being able to have children?

NEONA CONNOLLY: I'm still coming to terms with that. That's a bit of a challenge. Yeah. And also, it's a challenge because I didn't get to choose. The choice was taken away from me.

TARA BROWN: Cancer also almost stole her life. Early detection and chemotherapy has hopefully saved her. Did you think about your chances of survival? Did you think about death?

NEONA CONNOLLY: Yeah. I'm still frightened now. As much as I feel like I'm going to win this and I'm already on the road to winning this, it's still frightening because I know that I could have died and I know that I still can. I don't want to die.

TARA BROWN: Finally, there is hope. Right now, the only way to beat ovarian cancer is through early detection. But to date, there has been no fail-safe test available. Remarkable Australian brains and great passion have made a scientific breakthrough that's about to change that.

GREG RICE: This technology will revolutionise the way we do pathology around the world.

TARA BROWN: What Professor Greg Rice and Professor Michael Quinn are hoping to develop within five years will be easier than a Pap smear or a mammogram. It's a simple blood test and it's a world first. The breakthrough is being able to detect a number of indicators of early ovarian cancer. It's now at the clinical trials stage and, if successful, will lead to a universal screening test for all women.

MICHAEL QUINN: I think that what we want to do first of all is to prove that if you've got a cancer of the ovary, this test will detect it. We then want to go to the community, to women who don't have any symptoms, and screen those women to try to make a diagnosis early. And this is the single most important thing we've got in the fight against ovarian cancer, I believe.

TARA BROWN: Ovarian cancer is a disease of families and it destroyed Neona's. Her husband walked out, leaving her to face life and death on her own. Did your husband say why he left?

NEONA CONNOLLY: No, we haven't really been able to sit down and talk about it like adults, which would have been nice.

TARA BROWN: Well, you needed the support, didn't you?

NEONA CONNOLLY: Yeah, I did. Yeah.

TARA BROWN: What do you fear the most, Steve? What are you frightened of?

STEVE HANCOCK: Letting Kerry down, basically.

TARA BROWN: Kerry and Steve have been married for 30 years. Last Christmas, he had to break the news the cancer was back once more to their children Kassandra, Ryan and Aaron.

AARON HANCOCK: There's not a moment that goes by that I don't think about her and how much I love her.

RYAN HANCOCK: God, why do people deserve this? It's so unfair.

TARA BROWN: Do you think she'll get through it this time?

KASSANDRA HANCOCK: Yeah, she's a fighter. She always has been, she's always been so strong and healthy and fit. We know she's going to get through it again.

TARA BROWN: Six out of 10 women who are told they have ovarian cancer are dead within five years. Kerry was diagnosed four years ago.

KERRY HANCOCK: To the gynaecologist I just said, "Obviously there is nothing I can do any more, is there? It's always going to be with me." And when she started to tear up, I knew what the answer was then. And she said it's a part of my life. And I said, "Yeah, that's exactly right."

TARA BROWN: Back in Michael Quinn's operating theatre, the bad news is his patient who came in for routine surgery is now undergoing a radical hysterectomy and she still may face chemotherapy. The good news is that she's lucky. The cancer has been caught early and her chances of survival are high.

MICHAEL QUINN: Probably, we'll see that this woman has a 90 percent chance of being cured of her cancer.

TARA BROWN: But Professor Quinn wants to take the luck out of it. More research money would mean screen tests would be available sooner and so many more lives saved.

MICHAEL QUINN: I don't want to go to another funeral of a woman with ovarian cancer, that's why we've got to get this screening test up and running.

KERRY HANCOCK: You know, I want to fight. I want to go overseas. I want to live and have our dreams come true, you know. I want to get old.

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