Cancer is a many-headed monster. It may never be truly defeated, but great strides have been made in finding treatment options for many forms of cancer, allowing people to live full lives after diagnosis or even recover completely. Ovarian cancer, however, remains the most lethal cancer affecting Canadian women, with 56 percent of women diagnosed not surviving five years. In fact, there have been very few substantial advances in medication in decades — until now.

New treatments coming are now poised to change that. Unfortunately, for many women, the pace of government approval and funding may mean these new treatments arrive too late in Canada — despite already being available in over 30 other countries. “Women haven’t had many new ovarian cancer treatment options over the last 30 years,” explains Elisabeth Baugh, CEO of Ovarian Cancer Canada. “Five Canadian women are dying from ovarian cancer every day. We have to change that. Women with ovarian cancer deserve better.”

Know your risk

Part of the reason that ovarian cancer is so deadly is because it often presents no symptoms until it has progressed quite severely, making it particularly important for women to know if they are at elevated risk. “All women are at risk, but some are at greater risk,” says Baugh. “Women are at greater risk when they’re over 50, if there’s a family history of breast, ovarian, endometrial, or colorectal cancer, if they are of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, or if they have certain genetic mutations.”

Mona Sherkin of Ontario was diagnosed with ovarian cancer four years ago. She was in all the highest-risk categories, and has the BRCA mutation (which carries an up to 60 percent risk of developing ovarian cancer), but didn’t learn any of that until after the cancer sneaked up on her. “I felt terrific. There was nothing internal in terms of my body warning me. I was 58 and I was probably in the best shape of my life,” says Sherkin. “What makes me crazy about this disease is that with the amount of tumour that was in me, it must have been growing for over a year and I felt nothing. Nobody tells you anything about ovarian cancer. There’s not enough education out there for women.”

Understanding and accelerating the treatment landscape

Treatment for ovarian cancer cases like Mona’s are complicated by the insidious nature of the disease and the frequency of late-stage diagnosis. “If it’s diagnosed very early, it can be treated very effectively with surgery and chemotherapy,” says Dr. Amit Oza of Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. “But when it is diagnosed later, the long-term outcomes can be grim.”

New targeted treatment options, including several that are particularly effective in women with BRCA mutations, are now beginning to change that. “The conventional treatment for some time has been that you would reduce the burden of the disease with chemotherapy and then wait and see if the disease came back again,” says Dr. Oza. “Now we’re trying to break that cycle by giving maintenance treatment to reduce the likelihood of the disease recurring.”

Mona was fortunate enough to get on a clinical trial for one of the new therapies, and then receive it afterwards through the compassionate care program. Four years after diagnosis, having coped with two rounds of chemotherapy for reoccurring ovarian cancer, she is once again feeling strong and hanging out at the golf course — her remaining tumours being kept in check by her treatment. However, not all Canadian women have the same access. “We’re calling on all the provincial and territorial governments, drug manufacturers, and private insurers to weigh the evidence and move quickly on approving these treatments,” says Baugh. “As science accelerates, this need for prompt approval is going to keep coming up more and more often as new treatments continue to be discovered. We want Canadian women to rightly benefit from the speed of science.”

From Mona’s perspective, these new treatments mean the future looks bright. “Ovarian cancer is part of my life, and will be for the rest of my life, but it will not dictate how I live my life,” she says. “It really isn’t a death sentence any more. I know that if this treatment doesn’t work for me, though I’m hopeful it will, there is something new coming down the pipe.”

The goal must be to deliver that same degree of hope to all women across Canada.