Sansom Institute's Professor Ian Olver

On gynaecological cancers and helping those living with cancer

Professor Ian Olver

This September is Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month, a time to increase knowledge of cancers such as ovarian and cervical, the fourth most common cancer in women globally, and to raise funds for research into these rare diseases.

Professor Ian Olver, Director of UniSA’s Sansom Institute for Health Research, and former CEO of Cancer Council Australia, focuses his research on anticancer drug studies, symptom control and psycho-oncology, and improving cancer care in rural and remote communities.

Much of his work surrounds the alleviation of symptoms such as nausea, and the psychological impacts caused by disease and treatment, including anxiety and depression. His research also explores the issue of rare cancers, which includes gynaecological cancers.

While raising awareness of gynaecological cancers is important, and educating women on their symptoms is vital in ensuring earlier detection, Ian believes this is just one step in fighting rare cancers, like ovarian cancer.

“One of the disadvantages of ovarian cancer is that it doesn’t have a screening test, and has very vague symptoms that many people believe are simply from indigestion, irritable bowel, or even a common menstrual irregularity. People don’t necessarily think there’s a cancer under there.”

“We can make people aware of the uncertainty, but clearly we need more research. This is something women are dying of; these cancers are often picked up late because there are no screening tests and because symptoms are thought to be quite benign conditions. That’s what we want to change through our work at the Sansom Institute for Health Research.”

However, Ian says Australian research has made promising developments in improving cervical cancer detection. Throughout September, the Australian government is promoting its new National Cervical Screening Program, which was announced earlier this year.

“The changes coming in over the next couple of years will be less arduous on women because it will only be needed every five years. The Sansom population research group can look at these screening programs and see the impact on survival; that’s what research does in these settings.”

Ian says more funding and attention is needed for rare cancers in order to close the gap in detection, treatment, and quality of life between patients of rare and common diseases. During his time as CEO of Cancer Council Australia, Ian co-designed and conducted, with behavioural scientist, Hayely Whitford, the 20/20 Vision for Cancer Project - a world-first study built on more than fifteen years of research.

“We wanted to focus on the quality of life and wellbeing of cancer patients, which included the physical, social, emotional and the spiritual,” he says.

Ian is continuing this research in his role as the Director of UniSA’s Sansom Institute for Health Research. His team have established a web-based project which highlights the importance of investigating the impact that a patient’s spiritual wellbeing has upon their physical and mental wellbeing, as well as the impact of spiritual domains on under-researched groups like carers, medical professionals and families.

By analysing a patient’s quality of life in all stages of their cancer journey, they hope to improve quality of life and individual treatment for the patients and their families.

“The search for the meaning in life and illness and the achievement of peace are all part of the whole package, so you can’t just ignore it.”

To show your support for this vital cause and contribute to the research conducted at the Sansom Institute please visit:

By Anneliese Abela

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