September each year in Australia brings the marvellous season of spring, the promise of new beginnings and, with the warmer weather, a renewed focus on healthy living and the opportunity to share and raise awareness of rural women’s health and wellbeing.
September also brings Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month, with information and hope – hope that, with breakthrough research, we can continue to improve early diagnosis, treatment, support and recovery for women with gynaecological cancer everywhere across Australia.
It may be surprising to know there are eight gynaecological cancers and that, every two hours, an Australian woman is diagnosed with one. These cancers are: cervical, ovarian, uterine, endometrial, vaginal, fallopian tube, vulval and placental.
Women in rural areas with gynaecological cancer often have a great deal of trouble accessing accurate early diagnosis and treatment. In particular, women living in outer regional, remote or very remote areas may have difficulties accessing gynaecological health care due to distance and the limited availability of health services, and they often lack practical and emotional support. Much is being done to extend access to telehealth cancer support services and practitioners, including oncology nurses. However, many services are fragmented or only available in major city centres.
Awareness is growing of the need for greater research for gynaecological cancer, including by the Australian Gynaecological Cancer Foundation (AGCF). Its goal is improving research funding for all eight gynaecological cancers – which have been, historically, at the lower end of charity research funding in Australia.
The AGCF is a young foundation aiming to fund breakthrough research so future generations are given higher rates of survival. The AGCF was established by Professor Neville Hacker AM, at the suggestion of the late Senator Jeanne Ferris, who was treated by him for ovarian cancer in 2005–07. Sadly, Senator Ferris died in 2007. Her last speech to Parliament was ‘Breaking the silence: a national voice for gynaecological cancers’, following a two-year Senate inquiry into the low recognition, high mortality and morbidity of gynaecological cancers. The AGCF was officially launched at Parliament House, Canberra, in May 2015, by the Hon Sussan Ley, then Minister for Health.
Senator Ferris is remembered today by two non-monetary Jeanne Ferris awards, given annually by Cancer Australia. These awards recognise a professional and a lay person who have made major contributions to gynaecological cancer care or research in Australia. Professor Hacker was the inaugural recipient in the professional category in 2013.
Since launching AGCF, our dynamic and volunteer Board has successfully worked to raise funds for basic and breakthrough laboratory research into the improved prevention, diagnosis, treatment or cure of gynaecological cancers. Our grants are worth $220,000 over two years.
Prior to COVID-19, we awarded two brilliant minds fellowships, to Dr Dane Cheasley, from the Peter MacCallum Research Institute in Melbourne, and Dr Aimee Powell, of Notre Dame University in Perth. Both are outstanding researchers and were recently successful in winning further substantial grants in the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) ovarian cancer round, providing an outstanding return on investment.
‘AGCF is proud to have awarded their first brilliant minds fellowships to Aimee and Dane,’ Professor Hacker said. ‘Their outstanding research success has been recognised by MRFF and is of worldwide significance.
‘With the active AGCF Board members, CEO Kimberley Downes, and [our] Ambassadors, we are doubling our efforts to raise funds to support multiple brilliant minds breakthrough researchers and, by their success, give hope and extended lives to women with gynae cancer across Australia. We are grateful for all donations, however small.’
For more information on the history of AGCF, its research projects and achievements, as well as how to help, visit agcf.org.au