Ovarian Cancer Awareness Week

I rise this evening to speak about ovarian cancer, as I do each February for Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.

The campaign for Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month this year is Time For Action, which is right on the mark, because the statistics around ovarian cancer are horrific and we need to change them. The statistics clearly show that every day in Australia four women are diagnosed with the disease and three women die from it. This year ovarian cancer will take over 1000 mothers, daughters, grandmothers, sisters, aunties and friends from us—a truly devastating statistic.

I speak tonight about ovarian cancer, as I do each February, because it is something that I am so passionate about. Whilst some of what I have to say tonight may seem repetitive, it's extremely important that we keep talking about it, because we need to bring this type of cancer out into the open and create communities where it's okay to talk openly about the signs, symptoms and risk factors. We need to make ovarian cancer something that people are not shy or ashamed to talk about, because talking about it and sharing our experiences will help save lives.

One of the most terrifying things about ovarian cancer is how high the mortality rate is, which really comes down to the fact that around 70 per cent of women are diagnosed at an advanced stage because there is no early detection test. Even more frightening is that women are visiting the GPs around this country, on average, 3.2 times before being properly diagnosed. This is significant.

I have spoken to women who have presented to their GP with symptoms but were told that they had irritable bowel syndrome, were constipated or just needed to eat more fibre. A huge part of the problem is that the symptoms are often dismissed as common discomforts that many women experience regularly. This is why ovarian cancer too often goes unchecked, why it is often only detected at an advanced stage and why people call it the silent killer. But we must not ignore the symptoms or pass them off as women's business. Understanding and awareness of the symptoms is absolutely crucial to the early detection of ovarian cancer.

This morning, we had the Teal Ribbon Breakfast function here at Parliament House and we were given a dose of perspective from speakers who were brave and inspirational in sharing their stories. We heard from Christine Keepence and her nephew Jack—what a wonderful young man he is. Christine and her family have had an unreasonable share of unfairness. The emotional, mental and physical impact that a diagnosis of cancer can have on family and friends is significant. In fact, it's earth-shattering. Christine's story painted a different picture of the impact that cancer and, in particular, ovarian cancer has on a family.

Christine asked the audience this morning who had done their family tree. She joked about how much fun doing your family tree can be delving into the past and learning about your heritage. She said that there was a time when that was fun for her. But now, instead of doing a family tree, she's had to do a family cancer tree.

Ms Keepence's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at 50. Her father suffered liver cancer, and her little sister, Elisha Neave, died of ovarian cancer at 36. In one year, Christine Keepence's mother, father and sister were all dying of cancer under the same roof. Absolutely heart-wrenching.

The BRCA2 gene is rampant in Christine's family, and, sadly, she was diagnosed with cancer herself, on her 50th birthday. But she is a survivor.

For many families, the diagnosis of cancer turns anniversaries and birthdays that were once marked for celebration into reminders of diagnosis, treatment and death. In many families, the fun in doing your family tree is being replaced with a need to trace your family genetics and illnesses. I thank Christine for being such a powerful advocate for ovarian cancer and for reminding us all how important it is to know your family history when it comes to ovarian cancer and cancer in general.

I want to quickly thank Christine's nephew Jack, who flew all the way from Western Australia to speak with us this morning. Jack was only 11 when his mother, Christine's sister, passed away from ovarian cancer. Thank you, Jack, for your touching words this morning and for your ongoing efforts to raise awareness and understanding. You are living proof of just how deeply the diagnosis of cancer is felt by families. Your mother would be very proud of you, as I know your aunty was this morning.

I also want to share the story of Kate, a 20-something-year-old woman who started spotting between periods and having unusual bloating and fatigue—all symptoms that women often explain away as something else. When Kate considered what was happening, she stopped taking the pill and, for months, her symptoms continued and, in fact, became worse. Finally, she went to the doctor. Ultrasounds showed that she had a nine-centimetre cyst on her ovary.

But the doctor wasn't concerned and told her that 'all ovaries produce cysts, but this one just hasn't resolved itself.' Kate, fortunately, got a second opinion and was booked in for exploratory surgery. They found that the cyst had adhered to the wall of the bowel and was, in fact, cancerous. Kate ended up having both ovaries removed. They got it in time and, thankfully, she survived, but the physical and emotional toll on her and her family was enormous.

Kate's story highlights just how crucial it is that we take seriously and don't ignore the symptoms, like she initially did, and how important it is to seek a second opinion if it's necessary. As women, we need to empower ourselves by knowing the symptoms, the signs and our family history and by having open and early discussions with our doctor.

We need better awareness amongst our GPs and health specialists, because it's not okay that women are seeing a GP more than three times before being properly diagnosed. There is no early detection test, so to ensure a fast diagnosis, so it is absolutely vital that GPs and health professionals are proactive and better trained in identifying symptoms.

The most effective way of identifying and combating ovarian cancer is through screening and genetic marker testing. Research to develop diagnostic detection screening tests for ovarian cancer must be funded adequately. I commend the researchers who are working hard to learn more about ovarian cancer, how to prevent it, how to treat it and how to care for women who are diagnosed with it and their families as well.

Nonetheless, it is the continuing responsibility of this government to provide more funding to support research in early diagnosis and treatment. In government, Labor invested more than $3.5 billion to combat cancer, and I'm very proud to say that the Shorten Labor government, when elected—if elected—will build on this with a $12 million commitment to life-saving ovarian cancer research. This investment will go a long way towards Ovarian Cancer Australia's national action plan for ovarian cancer research and will potentially prevent 2,500 cases of breast cancer and 800 cases of ovarian cancer.

As I said, the statistics are overwhelming. We need to change that. We need to make it a priority. This month is cancer awareness month. I commend the commitment that's been given by the government, because I really do believe that all of us in this chamber are very much aware of what needs to be done.

I urge this government and my own colleagues to make it a priority. And I urge women to say, 'I'm not happy with that,' and seek that second opinion, because it's in all of our interests.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Williams): Thank you for a very good speech, Senator Polley.