Women unite in battle against cancer
DEALING with the devastating blow of a stage four cancer diagnosis, Dr Alisha Thomson will have to battle the exhaustion of regular travel from her home city of Townsville if she is accepted into a "lifesaving" clinical trial.
The career driven 31-year-old Townsville University Hospital doctor was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in November 2016, when she went back to the GP for more tests after experiencing symptoms for a few months.
"I decided I needed two weeks off work, I thought it was stress related," Dr Thomson said.
"Within a first few days of having time off I realised I was really unwell, I'd lost weight, I stopped eating. As a doctor I recognised the red flags for something serious.
"I was shocked because in my mind it's something that I thought affected older women, however it does affect women of any age.
"I had disease in my breasts, and under my arms … I was surprised it was that late of a diagnosis."
Now on the third course of chemo, Dr Thomson has had to take time off work again as the physical side effects take a toll.
"It has been pretty problematic on the career, every time I've had chemo, I've had three long periods off work," she said.
"For doctors, it's all about progressing, it's affected my training.
"There's actually some positives to it, it makes you appreciate the important things in life, you don't worry about little things as much, you prioritise the important things like family and friends."
Being on a "lifesaving" drug trial will come at the price of having to uproot her life and travel down south for a chance at beating the disease.
"I support the idea people in rural or regional areas deserve access to healthcare," Dr Thomson said.
"To be able to be supported by family, that's so important.
"I'm hoping to be on a trial, I don't want to have to move to Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane to be on a trial. I want to be able to be on that trial at home.
"We all deserve the right and access to good treatment and clinical trials is where you get your innovative, lifesaving stuff."
It's what has driven her to back Townsville Cancer Centre director of medical oncology Professor Sabe Sabesan in his national push to make teletrials part of standard practice around Australia.
It would allow patients to be safely treated and participate in a trial, without the financial stress and expense of travelling to another centre.
"If you're from a smaller town or larger regional centre you may not have all the trials that you need for your patients," Dr Sabesan said.
"It links the doctors and nurses on both sides using technology.
"Clinical trials are important for all diseases with advancements in medicine, but more so important for cancer patients."
Dr Sabesan said the teletrial system was at a pilot phase in Queensland, but wanted to see it embedded into the operations of all hospitals.
"It's so frustrating to not be able to provide the best treatment available no matter where they (patients) live," he said.
"That's why we are going to the next stage of lobbying the government … I'm hoping clinicians and government can work together."
Dr Sabesan said Queensland Health had agreed to establish a regional clinical trials co-ordinating centre based in Townsville, if the Federal Government also provided funding.
He saw first-hand the impact travelling for a trial had on Janice Mayes, a prominent Townsville family law barrister, respected unionist and advocate for women who died from ovarian cancer aged 55 in August last year.
"For me as a doctor it was heart breaking, she travelled to Brisbane every fortnight, staying overnight," he said.
Her sister, former Herbert MP Cathy O'Toole, said it was "exhausting" for Janice who backed this initiative to ensure all people, regardless of their socio-economic status or location could access the best treatment as she could.
"We have to do better in the regions, we can't be sending everyone to Brisbane," she said.
"There is a better way to treat women and I will fight tooth and nail to get it."
Ms O'Toole said watching her bright, intelligent sister with so much to give to the legal profession deteriorate was "indescribable".
"I still can't quite believe it, at the end of that last month it was the most rapid decline you have ever seen," she said. "She was the most positive upbeat person who was dying, she made it easier for us."
At the end of June 2019, it was confirmed the cancer had returned, the recurrence meaning she could no longer be a part of the trial.
"Crying she (Janice) told me 'I won't be here for Christmas'."
Dr Thomson along with a group of Townsville and North Queensland families and women who have been affected by ovarian cancer, are fundraising for the Janice Mayes Ovarian Cancer Research Grant that will go towards research for treatment.
She urged women not to dismiss their symptoms, and to go to a doctor if they had any concerns to help with early detection.
According to the Cancer Council Australia, the five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer is 45 per cent.
It is the eighth most common cancer affecting Australian women.
>>You can donate to the research grant here: www.womencan.org.au/fundraisers/Townsville--s-Ovarian-Cancer-Team