Each day, at least four more women across Australia will receive the news they never wanted to hear: that they have ovarian cancer.
Early detection tests for the disease are non-existent and early treatments are rare. As a result, three out of every four women will only receive a diagnosis after the cancer has already advanced. And around four out of 10 women with the disease will survive five years after their diagnosis.
Mother of two young boys, Letitia Linke, is one of the many Australian women currently living with ovarian cancer.
Almost three years ago, Linke had an ovarian ultrasound. "The doctors noticed something ‘unusual’ in my ovaries but they said ‘it was nothing to worry about given your age’," says the 36-year-old.
"Well that was incorrect. I’ve since met quite a few women between 30 and 40 years old who have ovarian cancer. It’s just a stereotype that it only happens to women over 50 years old. It does happen to younger people."
The doctors noticed something ‘unusual’ in my ovaries but they said ‘it was nothing to worry about given your age’.
Linke is right. Although ovarian cancer is more common in older age, 20 per cent of all cases occur in women under 50.
As it turned out, it took 10 more months before Linke felt a lump in her abdominal wall. She consulted a doctor who mistakenly thought she had a hernia before ordering an operation for endometriosis.
"Lucky for me, the gynaecologist biopsied my ovaries and found ovarian cancer. I was very shocked - in no way did I think I had ovarian cancer."
Within a week, Linke had a radical hysterectomy to remove her ovaries, uterus and part of her cervix. "Thankfully, I already had two children. But I’ve met many people along the way, who’ve had a radical hysterectomy but didn’t have children yet."
For the next nine months, Linke received chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment. She got the ‘all clear’ in February 2015 before relapsing in September. "I still have ovarian cancer. Cancer has become part of my life."
Linke doesn’t carry the gene for ovarian cancer so technically, there’s no real reason why she developed the disease. And, although Linke’s disease should have been detected much sooner, she remains thankful that the cancer is contained within her pelvic region.
"I have heard stories about how some women aren't diagnosed until it is too late. I am just grateful that I can be treated."
According to Ovarian Cancer Australia, the deadly fate of many ovarian cancer patients could be altered if an early detection test existed. The group estimates that around 80 per cent of all women would go on to live healthy lives for at least five years after diagnosis if their cancer was detected early.
Ovarian cancer expert Professor David Bowtell remains confident that a scientific breakthrough is on the horizon and that research will soon uncover the secret to early detection and targeted treatment.
He explains that researchers recently discovered that ovarian cancer is not one disease but a collection of distinct diseases, each with different cellular origins and molecular characteristics.
"It’s now important to recognise that a one-size fits all approach to treatment isn’t going to work and we need to take a much more effective approach to differentiating molecular events that cause tumours," says the head of ovarian cancer research at Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Prof Bowtell.
He reports that his lab also worked with international colleagues to identify how ovarian cancer has evolved to become resistant to chemotherapy.
"For the first time in decades, we now have an idea what is going on in these women and understand a number of mechanisms cancer uses to evade chemotherapy.
"Knowledge is power and if we can now go on to understand how the cancer evolves, we can perhaps prevent it from going down that path.…It’s not an easy task but there is reason to be optimistic."
As for Linke, all she can do now is hope that researchers create a targeted cure and an early detection test "not just for me but for the other people".
"You usually only find out you have ovarian cancer because you’ve got a 20 centimetre tumour bloating your stomach. And it’s still a common misbelief that you can detect ovarian cancer from a pap smear. You can’t.
"I’ve made good friends in the chemo room and seen people who have already lost their lives from this disease…I urge women to know their bodies and be aware of the signs of ovarian cancer."
Women of all ages are advised to look out for abdominal or pelvic pain; a change in abdominal size or bloating; needing to urinate often or urgently and feeling full after eating a small amount of food.
"If you think there’s something wrong with you, you need to go and get yourself checked out.
"And if you are dismissed by your doctor, don’t give up. Keep going until you end up with the answer you want."
If you are worried about symptoms or would like support, call Ovarian Cancer Australia on 1300 660 334.