The overall five year survival rate for early ovarian cancer has increased from 21 per cent in the early 1970s to 41 per cent today. Over 1,000 more women per year in England and Wales are now surviving ovarian cancer for at least 5 years due to improved survival rates1.
But more work is needed to see the same improvements in women diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer.
Based on data from the East of England Cancer Registry (ECRIC), survival rates for women diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer – the majority (45 per cent) of women – still lag behind with just over 20 per cent surviving five years. And this falls to less than six per cent of women with stage IV disease2.
Ovarian cancer often develops without any clear symptoms and many women only discover they have it once it has spread.
Dr James Brenton, based at Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge Research Institute and an ovarian cancer clinician at Addenbrooke’s hospital, said: “These latest figures show improvements in treatment, such as centralisation of ovarian cancer surgery and uniform access to chemotherapy, are making a difference in helping more women survive ovarian cancer, particularly those who are diagnosed earlier. But we face a real challenge in translating these improvements in survival to women whose ovarian cancer has already spread.”
In the 1980s Cancer Research UK scientists discovered a chemotherapy drug called carboplatin, now the ‘gold standard’ treatment for ovarian cancer. This not only treated women more successfully when they were first diagnosed with ovarian cancer, but offered new options to treat recurrences of the disease.
To tackle the issue of late diagnosis Cancer Research UK are helping to fund a pivotal trial of ovarian cancer screening. More than 200,000 women are participating in this nationwide trial testing whether ultrasound scanning and a blood test can save lives.
The early results have been promising, and if the final findings, expected in 2015, show this is successful it could lead to a national screening programme that will help to detect the disease earlier and save many more lives.
Researchers are also looking at developing more targeted treatments that are aimed at the particular characteristics of a woman’s ovarian cancer. Cancer Research UK scientists are playing a key role in developing this new generation of drugs including PARP inhibitors, which could help women with ovarian cancer who also have faulty BRCA genes. They are already showing promising results in clinical trials and could make a big difference for many women with ovarian cancer in the future.
Dr Brenton added: “Ovarian cancer is starting to become a more controllable chronic disease but a cure remains elusive in most cases. We need to investigate the full potential of targeted treatments such as PARP inhibitors as they may also benefit women who don’t have faulty BRCA genes. Hopefully through these new treatments and, importantly, with better ways to screen and detect the cancer earlier, we will help more women beat the disease.”
Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer in women, each year around 6,500 women are diagnosed with the disease, with most cases diagnosed in women over 50.
Around 4,400 women died of ovarian cancer in 2008 though mortality rates have fallen by 14 per cent over the last decade.
Cancer Research UK is the largest single funder of ovarian cancer research in the UK, last year spending over £12 million of public donations on tackling the disease.
Dr Lesley Walker, Cancer Research UK’s director of cancer information, said: “These figures show that we’re making steady progress against ovarian cancer but much more needs to be done. Cancer Research UK is committed to finding new ways to treat and detect the disease. In the coming years we could really see some of the benefits of this work, particularly a potential nationwide screening programme that finds women with the disease earlier.
“New treatments are also in the pipeline that could help keep the disease under control for longer, meaning that ovarian cancer becomes a disease that women can live with for many years.”
For media enquiries please contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 3469 8300 or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.
Notes to editors
1. Five year relative survival rates for England & Wales in 1971-75 and 2003-07 were applied to the numbers of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2008 to estimate how many more women are predicted to survive their disease for five years in the latest data compared with how many would have survived in the early 1970s if there had been no improvement in survival.
2. Using data from East Anglia, five year relative survival rates are more than 90 per cent for the earliest stage of disease, Stage I, but fall to less than 10 per cent for the latest stage, Stage IV. Stages for ovarian cancer are generally viewed as early – stages I or II and late – stages III or IV, based on tumour size, whether the cancer had spread to nearby nodes or whether it had spread more widely around the body.