Ovarian Cancer Action supported by The Freemasons' Grand Charity

Thursday, 05 September 2013

Make a future

This year marks the culmination of a £1 million grant to Ovarian Cancer Action, made by the Grand Charity over the past five years. Freemason Geoff Fisher explains to Tabby Kinder why he is proud to be involved with an organisation that supports the people fighting this disease

When Gill Fisher died of ovarian cancer in 2010, after six years of fighting the illness, it would have been easy for her husband Geoff, Past Provincial Junior Grand Deacon and Treasurer at Anderton Lodge, to become detached and withdrawn. Instead, Geoff has spent the past three years tirelessly raising awareness about the disease: ‘If I can get just one woman to notice the symptoms and raise the issue with her doctor, then all of this will seem worthwhile.’

During Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month (March), Geoff leaflets banks, supermarkets, school staff rooms and local businesses with information. But his mission isn’t confined to one month: ‘I even stuff Christmas cards with leaflets, asking people to distribute them.’ Geoff also makes the Walk of Hope every year with his two grown-up children or friends of his wife. It’s a ten-kilometre trip through Tatton Park, which brings people together to raise money for the Christie NHS Foundation Trust: the Manchester cancer treatment hospital where Gill spent much of her time in her final years.

For Geoff, and anyone with a similar experience, getting the word out about this deadly disease is key. In fact, as the biggest gynaecological killer of UK women, it is hard to believe that ovarian cancer has had so little publicity compared with other cancers affecting women, such as breast and cervical. Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer among women in the UK, with around seven thousand new cases each year. Although women are statistically more likely to get breast cancer than ovarian cancer, the latter is significantly more deadly, with a five-year survival rate of below ten per cent once the disease is in an advanced stage.

‘When the cancer is in the first stages, maybe ninety-four per cent of people are cured just by operation, but if the disease spreads into the abdominal cavity, the number of people who are ultimately cured is very low,’ says Professor Hani Gabra, director of the Ovarian Cancer Action Research Centre at Hammersmith Hospital – the only facility of its kind in the UK and the ‘national jewel for research’ in Europe. Ovarian cancer is almost totally undetectable before it has spread, so the earliest stage of detection is often too late.

Awareness is key

Geoff’s wife was misdiagnosed twice, first by an emergency doctor and then by her own GP, before being correctly diagnosed by a gynaecologist ten weeks after displaying the classic symptoms of a malignant cyst (see ‘Know the Symptoms’ overleaf to learn the warning signs). This same story emerges again and again in personal accounts of women being diagnosed with a gastric complaint and prescribed paracetamol for a few days. ‘People need to know the symptoms and be prepared to challenge their doctor,’ says Geoff.

When it comes to combating ovarian cancer, increased awareness is only one part of the jigsaw. Lengthy and expensive research and trials are needed to understand the cancer and develop treatments. Ovarian Cancer Action (OCA) is committed to making this a survivable disease by funding research and raising awareness. Geoff has been involved with the national charity since Gill’s first diagnosis in 2004, when he and his wife would collect donations and sell badges in support of OCA. Geoff is keen to acknowledge the support he has received from his lodge in all his activities, especially fundraising, both throughout Gill’s illness and since.

‘If I can get just one woman to notice the symptoms and raise the issue with her doctor, then all of this will seem worthwhile.’ Geoff Fisher

Discovering hope

OCA invests £1 million a year to fund the life-saving work being done by Professor Gabra and his team, who report real hope thanks to a second stage of clinical trials that began this year. ‘We’ve worked with pharmaceutical companies on a series of trials that started in 2011, establishing that the drugs that target what we think may be crucial are safe to use. Now we are combining those drugs with standard chemotherapy drugs and there are some signals of activity – things are looking surprisingly promising at this point,’ Professor Gabra says.

The awareness work done by Geoff on the street and the research in the lab have run in parallel with a £1 million grant approved by the Grand Charity in 2008 – payable to OCA over five years, culminating this year. It’s the conclusion of a huge donation by Freemasons to an illness that needs to find more recognition within research and funding circles. The sustained nature of the funding meant OCA could make ‘quick-term gains, while still supporting the long-term science and research needed,’ says Allyson Kaye, the charity’s founder and chair.

‘Freemason support has allowed us to do a mailing list to GPs and practice nurses every year since 2008, in which we outline the symptoms of ovarian cancer,’ she adds. ‘And it funded the first formal survey of GPs, which gave us a baseline to understand what UK healthcare professionals really knew about the disease, allowing us to better evaluate our work.’

The Grand Charity’s donation also supports the work of Professor Gabra, as well as funding a national database of tumour samples from women who have been treated for ovarian cancer, enabling more cohesive research. ‘In 2008 our charity was at a very early stage and ovarian cancer was very much a silent killer,’ says Kaye. ‘The Freemasons’ support has helped us grow and given women a voice.’

Practical progress

Through this grant, Freemasons are supporting a charity that is making a huge difference to cancer research. ‘We’re bringing the research out of the lab and pushing it into the clinic,’ says Professor Gabra. ‘Between four hundred and six hundred patients with gynaecological cancers have their surgery and chemotherapy here in the NHS clinic every year, but we also run the clinical trials alongside the practice, so fresh ideas find themselves first in our treatments. The scope and scalability of the discoveries that we’re making at this research facility have huge potential.’

Supporting Ovarian Cancer Action

Having previously donated £1 million towards research into prostate cancer, the Council of the Grand Charity recommended in 2008 that a similar donation should be given for research into a cancer that affects women. It was agreed that the counsel of women should be sought, as their opinions would be extremely beneficial in deciding which charity should receive the funding.

Among the women asked to contribute their thoughts was Zita Elliott, the wife of the Grand Charity’s then president Grahame Elliott CBE. Zita remembers the bright, summery day when the ten women met together at Freemasons’ Hall in London: ‘We all sat down and over a cup of tea were asked to make a recommendation. Believe me, we didn’t take it lightly,’ she says.

‘The thing I remember most is how quickly we all reached a unanimous agreement.

Our suggestion was to fund research into ovarian cancer. At that time it was very much the silent killer; few people knew the symptoms and the survival rate was extremely low. We are all delighted with what Ovarian Cancer Action has achieved over the past five years.’

Know the symptoms

In a recent survey of UK women, Ovarian Cancer Action found that more than sixty-six per cent of respondents were not aware of the main symptoms of ovarian cancer: persistent stomach pain, persistent bloating or increased stomach size, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly and needing to urinate more frequently. Other signs may include: changes in bowel habits, fatigue and back pain. The symptoms are mainly gastric and are similar to those of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) – but they are distinctive because they’re frequent and persistent, whereas those of IBS come and go. Only ten to fifteen per cent of people with advanced ovarian cancer are alive ten years later, compared to seventy per cent of breast cancer sufferers. ‘Awareness is key,’ says Professor Gabra. ‘Bring it up with your GP if you are experiencing the symptoms.’

For more information, visit www.ovarian.org.uk

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