Associate Professor Caroline Ford BSc (1st Class Hons), PhD is a cancer researcher within the School of Women’s and Children’s Health at the Lowy Cancer Research Centre. She currently leads the Gynaecological Cancer Research Group (GCRG), which aims to understand why gynaecological cancers develop, how and why they spread throughout the body, and how best to treat them.
Their projects on ovarian cancer revolve around the development of an early detection test. Currently there are no early detection tests and most women are diagnosed at stage three or four cancer. However the GCRG are investigating the circulation of cancer DNA in the blood stream, which can be detected in tiny amounts. With most patients still being diagnosed very late, the group are also looking to identify new targets for drugs to stop the metastatic process.
Most recently the Gynaecological Cancer Research Group have been working on research into endometrial cancer. While it generally has much better survival rates than ovarian cancers, there are subsets of the disease that patients have which are very aggressive, spread rapidly and there are no successful treatments. It is a misunderstood women’s cancer with the view that you can “cure” the disease with a hysterectomy as this is a “non-essential organ”. However, there are significant side effects to this operation and it may not be appropriate for all women. The GCRG are focused on the drivers of metastasis and if they can apply what has been learned from ovarian cancer into endometrial.
For Dr Caroline Ford, the thrill of scientific research is its impact on patients. What is important and motivating is improving outcomes. She calls herself a feminist and was shocked to discover that women’s cancers and gynae cancers in particular were so disadvantaged with lack of funding and little progress.
“There is a lack of comfort in Australia in discussing anything related to gynaecological issues and the reproductive system,” says Dr Ford. “There is a big stigma in even naming those body parts. Women can be embarrassed and ashamed if anything changes, which probably means early symptoms are missed.”
She sees this as a broader societal issue. Even well-educated feminists can be unclear on their own body parts. For example, the HPV vaccine has been hugely successful in Australia, however many women simply don’t know what it does and doesn’t vaccinate against.
Dr Ford hopes to educate women and use research into cancers to make a real impact on their lives. However the biggest challenge is funding. She is trained as a scientist but spends half her year writing grant applications for experiments, staff and project funding. Unfortunately gynae cancers are often underrepresented in government funding, with breast cancer more well-known and discussed.
More money results in survival. “The impact of broader community awareness and the dollar investment into research can make a huge difference,” says Dr Ford. “Breast cancer can lead the way for other cancers.”
She particularly wants to encourage more women into STEMM and medical research of gynae cancers. “Women are going to have to change the conversation and culture around discussing these types of issues, because women understand and know their body,” she says. “Historically men have led, but now is the time that women become the leaders.”
To help fund more research and save lives, you can donate to the AGCF, the only Australian foundation focussed on funding research into all gynae cancers. The Foundation supports outstanding science, nursing, allied health or medical graduates who seek funding to undertake further research and improve the lives of women.