Three women will lose their lives to ovarian cancer today in Australia, and around 300,000 women will be diagnosed with the disease every year worldwide. Ovarian cancer is the deadliest cancer affecting women, yet incredibly there are few warning signs, no early detection test and no cure.
For Camilla Freeman-Topper and Marc Freeman, the duo behind luxury fashion label Camilla and Marc, the cause is a person one having lost their mother to ovarian cancer when they were just 11 and 13, respectively. Together they have launched their latest campaign, “Ovaries. Talk About Them“, in a bid to lessen not only the stigma surrounding the disease but also our reluctance to openly discuss anything to do with the female reproductive organs. The pair sat down with T Australia Publisher and Editor, Katarina Kroslakova to talk about how and why they have aligned their luxury brand with raising awareness and funds for ovarian cancer research.
You launched the campaign in 2020. What was the feedback and impact?
CFT: “We were so amazed by the support and solidarity last year’s campaign received. In 2020, we raised a remarkable $225K of fundraising which significantly kickstarted the further development of an early detection test and enabled the UNSW Ovarian Cancer Research Group to employ two key female scientists to focus solely on this work. Associate Professor Caroline Ford now has two full time researchers: senior scientist, Dr Kristina Warton, and Ms Teagan Fisher, a recent BSc (First Class Honours) graduate with excellent molecular biology skills and a strong enthusiasm for ovarian cancer research. While this was an incredible achievement for the first year of the “Ovaries. Talk About Them” campaign, we still have a journey ahead to reach our goal in moving this early detection program into clinical tests.”
Let’s talk about the government funding towards this cause…
CFT: “Ovarian Cancer doesn’t get the same funding or awareness as other female cancers such as ‘breast cancer’ because there aren’t many women who live to tell the tale and advocate for the disease (which leads to lack of awareness and therefore funding), and on top of that there is a stigma attached to talking about ovaries and women’s gynaecological anatomy in general (women and men generally don’t feel confident talking about that part of their bodies as openly as other body parts so it leads to conversations not been had and unfortunately, this is a case of life-or-death when it comes to ovarian cancer.)
When you compare the disease statistics to breast cancer, 30-50 years ago it was awkward to say the word ‘breast’, and the survival rates of the disease were a lot lower than what they are now. With a significant amount of funding and campaigning along with cultural shifts in women’s liberation – in many countries, including Australia, the five-year survival rate for women diagnosed in stage I and II is now 80-90%.
What we’re aiming to do with this campaign – aside from raising mass awareness – is to normalise and de-stigmatise talking about our ovaries so that more conversations can be had and women can feel OK to talk about their bodies. Disease funding is also a highly politicised arena, meaning wide scale funding relies heavily on government support. If the word ‘ovaries’ has a stigma attached to it and ovarian cancer very little awareness, it is unfortunately not going to be high up on the agenda, particularly in a male-dominated politics.
This is why we are working to change this reality because right now, around 75% of women are diagnosed at a late stage and by the time the cancer has reached these stages, it’s often too late. And 300, 000 women are diagnosed each year [with ovarian cancer], which means it’s going to be too late for 75% of those women. These statistics are just not good enough and the fact that they have hardly changed in the last 30 years, since my mother passed away, needs urgent attention.
Early detection is absolutely key, and this is why our focus lies solely on funding an early detection test, working closely with Associate Professor Caroline Ford at UNSW Ovarian Cancer Research Centre. Every conversation that sheds light on this insidious disease is a step closer towards bringing it to an end. Whether the conversation is in person with loved ones and family, or on social media, this campaign is all about raising awareness and talking openly about how we can, as a community of women and men, shift the statistics. It won’t happen through the efforts of a few, but the combined contribution of many.”
Tell me about the “Ovaries. Talk about them” 2021 campaign, is this a long-term project for you both?
MF: “This is certainly a long-term project for us. We have created a five-year plan that is all about funding an early detection test and moving that test into Clinical Trials. The important thing to note is that Associate Professor Caroline Ford and her team at Ovarian Cancer Research Centre, UNSW have already discovered an early detection test – it just needs funding.
The five-year plan moves through five stages of clinical progress from expanding the biospecimen collection to further testing in control populations, testing in blood from ovarian cancer populations and finally, once the test is in its final format, test in clinical settings to see if it detects ovarian cancer in patients without symptoms. Moving the early detection test into Clinical Trials means that women will be able to have access to this test at their local GP, and therefore have a much greater chance of survival.
The rates of survival are among the lowest of any disease. On average, one woman every eight hours dies from ovarian cancer. The overall five-year survival rate is only 46% and drops to just 17% if the cancer is stage IV at detection. That’s a staggering statistic. This is why an early detection test is so important.”
How do you plan to achieve cut through with this campaign?
CFT: “By sparking a meaningful conversation in Australia and globally, as well as using our platform with hundreds and thousands of followers to get the message out. It has been incredibly humbling to find a community of women and men, celebrities, influencers, and publishers who care deeply about the future of women’s health and saving the lives of millions of women worldwide. When it comes down to it, this is the purpose of the campaign. The statistics speak for themselves… it affects millions every year. This is not a small problem; it requires desperate attention.”
Do you have any personal anecdotes of your campaigns making a difference?
MF: “There are so many… Last year we received a huge amount of personal messages from people who have been affected by the disease, whether it was losing loved ones or their own personal diagnosis. The sentiment is definitely an appreciation of the conversation opening up and making a big deal about something that affects so many women in Australia.
More recently, we shot our campaign and had the honour of Caitlyn Delaney joining us. She has stage IV ovarian cancer and recently spoke to Parliament about her journey. Her feedback after the shoot was that she was grateful that we are creating this community, and that she feels her daughters have an understanding now of what advocacy can look like, and how much it can make a difference.”