Legislative Council: Wednesday, November 16, 2022


Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month

The Hon. L.A. CURRAN (15:44): September is Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month. This is a term that is used for all types of cancers that can occur in or on a woman's reproductive organs and genitals. In 2022, about 9.3 per cent of all cancers diagnosed in Australian women were this type of cancer.

An estimated 9.6 per cent of all female deaths from cancer in 2022 were from gynaecological cancers. The overall chance of surviving these cancers for at least five years is 71 per cent, with the lowest in ovarian cancer at 49 per cent. In comparison, although there are a higher number of deaths in women with breast cancer due to its prevalence, the chance of surviving breast cancer for at least five years is higher at 92 per cent.

On 5 September 2022, The Advertiser reported on the need for more funding for these cancers, especially ovarian cancer. The article stated that one of the most promising trials for ovarian cancer therapy was still awaiting funding. Professor Clare Scott, who is the Chair of the Australia New Zealand Gynaecological Oncology Group, was quoted in the article as saying, 'If we don't push for funding of innovative trials of new therapies, survival rates will not improve.'

It is vital that life-saving research into these cancers is funded by the federal and state governments as well as other granting bodies. The only gynaecological cancer that has a screening test is cervical cancer. The screening has been a tremendous success in Australia. The incidence and mortality rates of cervical cancer have halved in Australia since the introduction of the National Cervical Screening Program in 1991. The program offered a free Pap smear test every two years to women between the ages of 18 and 70.

As of 1 December 2017, the Pap smear test has been replaced with the new cervical screening test. Under the new program, most women aged 25 to 74 will be tested every five years for HPV. If a woman is negative for HPV, she can then wait five years before her next screening test, as HPV causes almost all cervical cancers. If the test is positive for HPV, then further tests such as the Pap smear test and any other treatments required, such as the removal of precancerous or cancerous cells, can occur.

The ease of the test has been improved this year as women can also now self-collect a sample. It is concerning, however, that COVID-19 restrictions had an effect on cervical cancer screenings. Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) data showed that in March 2020, when COVID-19 restrictions began, cervical screening test numbers dropped dramatically. The MBS figures reveal that only 174,000 women had a test from March 2020 to June 2020 when COVID-19 restrictions were in place. This figure is dwarfed by the half a million tests that were performed during the same period in 2019. Now that restrictions have been lifted, hopefully women who have missed their appointments have caught up.

The reason some of these gynaecological cancers are detected too late is not only the lack of testing ability or the screening but the symptoms being similar to other common gynaecological symptoms, such as bloating and cramping. This is particularly the case for ovarian cancer, where they can be interpreted as mere tiredness, weight gain and bloating. Other symptoms can include appetite loss, abdominal or pelvic pain and increased urination frequency. Funding of accurate screening tests, effective treatments and educational resources about symptoms of these cancers is paramount to the improvement of health outcomes for women in South Australia.