December 7, 2021

An Interview with Oncologist Dr Yeh Chen Lee: Ovarian Cancer Awareness

Milla Maria
An Interview with Oncologist Dr Yeh Chen Lee: Ovarian Cancer Awareness
We speak to Dr Yeh Chen Lee about ovarian cancer and the push for early detection tests.

Dr Yeh Chen Lee got on our radar following her participation in luxury jewellery brand Georg Jensen’s collaboration with the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation (OCRF), which is fundraising for research into an early detection test for ovarian cancer. As an oncologist that specialises in gynaecological cancers, Dr Lee is well-versed in both the biological explanations of cancer as well as patient experiences, so we reached out to her to learn more about this underacknowledged form of cancer.

Recently, you were part of a campaign with luxury brand Georg Jensen that created the Mercy collection with proceeds supporting ovarian cancer research. How did you become involved with the campaign?

Dr Lee: I am a medical oncologist and clinical researcher. There are relatively limited funding opportunities for cancer research in Australia. When my previous mentor Dr Geraldine Gross approached me about this campaign, I jumped on to this opportunity as it is important to raise awareness about ovarian cancer and this campaign will help raise vital funds for ovarian cancer research.

Your expertise is in medical oncology with subspecialty expertise in gynaecological cancers and sarcoma. Why did you decide to specialise in these areas?

Dr Lee: Patients with cancer are most vulnerable, and those with gynaecological cancers and sarcoma tend to be younger. They don’t really get any warnings and their livelihoods are basically put on hold the moment they receive their diagnosis. I really want to help them by providing professional guidance on how is best to treat their disease and support them through their cancer journey. As an oncologist, I feel privileged to be able to make a difference at this defining moment in their lives. I feel inspired by the courage of my patients. As a researcher, we still have so much to work remaining to improve outcomes for our patients in the future.

Ovarian cancer has earned a reputation as the silent killer, with vague symptoms that many women confuse with regular complaints and are often not diagnosed as ovarian cancer until it is in its late stages. What is ovarian cancer, and what signs should we look out for? How is ovarian cancer different from other gynaecological cancers, like fallopian tube cancer and peritoneal cancer?

Dr Lee: Ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer and peritoneal cancer refer to cancer that arises from the corresponding organ parts of the reproductive tract. In the past, they were collectively referred to as “ovarian cancer” because their presenting symptoms and treatment approaches were very similar. The symptoms of ovarian cancer are vague, such as bloating, abdominal pressure and discomfort, and feeling easily tired. More often than not, women may think they are just going through menopause, or feeling stressed from work. Unfortunately, by the time their symptoms are more apparent, their cancer is already at an advanced stage.

Detection of the disease at an early stage is essential to improving survival rates, with much research focused on this area. What causes ovarian cancer? Do you have any recommendations around how we can better monitor our health or look for the signs of ovarian cancer?

Dr Lee: Sadly, there is no effective screening test for ovarian cancer. However, if an individual is experiencing troublesome abdominal symptoms that do not seem to go away, it is imperative to see a doctor for a check-up. We also know that up to 15% of ovarian cancers can be the result of inheriting a faulty gene called the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. Therefore, if an individual has a family history of breast and ovarian cancer, it is important to speak to their doctor and assess their personal risk of cancer.

Your research focuses on advancing and translating knowledge about cancer genetics, drug development, and supportive care. What are the typical treatment options for ovarian cancer?

Dr Lee: The typical treatment for ovarian cancer consists of surgery following by chemotherapy. Some patients may have chemotherapy before surgery.

For women that have risk factors for ovarian cancer, should they consider preventive surgery?

Dr Lee: Women who carry a faulty BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene are at a much higher risk of developing ovarian cancer. They should seek health professional advice for their personal risk and discuss screening options for other related cancers such as breast cancer screening. Their doctor will also discuss preventive surgery for ovarian cancer after they have finished having children.

Are there any new exciting results you can share with us from your involvement with clinical trials related to gynaecologic cancers?

Dr Lee: I am a research fellow at the NHMRC Clinical Trials Centre and also an active member of the Australia New Zealand Gynaecological Oncology Group (ANZGOG). We conduct clinical trials and multidisciplinary research into the causes, prevention and treatments for gynaecological cancers. One exciting result is that we now use a targeted therapy called PARP inhibitors as maintenance treatment following chemotherapy to prevent cancer relapse or progression for those who carry the faulty BRCA gene. More research is underway on how we can leverage the same therapy for those who do not carry the BRCA gene.

Finally, which physicians should a woman consult if she suspects she has ovarian cancer?

Dr Lee: Should a women suspect she has ovarian cancer, the most streamlined approach is to consult her general practitioner first for assessment. Her general practitioner can then promptly direct a referral to a specialist accordingly.

We'd like to give a huge thank you to Dr Lee for sharing her professional insights with us! This is a topic that's so important for all of us to learn about, and it's wonderful to hear from such a prominent doctor in the field. If you'd like to support the Georg Jensen x Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation campaign, you can purchase the necklace here, with $50 per purchase going directly to the cause.

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