Forget about the month of March being dedicated to the Roman God, Mars, who was the god of agriculture and warfare – it is undoubtedly the month for women worldwide! The list of dates observed during March include International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day, as well as Women’s History Day, and the whole month is dedicated to raising awareness of ovarian cancer.
The RCOG has been involved in research and management of ovarian cancer for over 80 years, and College co-founder, Professor William Blair-Bell conducted extensive research between 1911 and 1913 during his practice, both privately in Wallasey, Cheshire, and as assistant consulting gynaecologist to Liverpool Infirmary. A note book exists among his papers entitled ‘Chemical composition of the fluid contents of ovarian cysts’, providing anonymised patient data on surgery conducted for ovarian cysts and the pathology of the cysts. Blair-Bell returned to this early research in the 1930s, having by this time gained the chair in midwifery and gynaecology at Liverpool University and the presidency of the new College of obstetrics and gynaecology. This time he had the assistance of his protégé, Morris Datnow, who was very active in cancer research, and it was with Datnow that Blair-Bell produced a paper on ovarian ‘neoplasms’, looking at the pathology of ovarian tumours and making recommendations for management and treatment:
‘Radium has no place in the treatment of this disease, and in our experience x-ray treatment does more harm than good. With lead therapy we… have had much encouragement…’
Blair-Bell wasn’t the only Fellow of the RCOG making ovarian cancer his subject of research: one of the most important pieces of work published by Victor Bonney, the esteemed London gynaecologist who based his refusal to join the new college on a disdain for medical specialism, was his Technical Minutiae of extended Myomectomy and Ovarian Cystectomy, published in 1946 and accompanied by 242 line drawings by the author (copies of which are available in the RCOG Library).
In 1980, Professor C Hudson gave the Victor Bonney Prize Lecture at the RCOG, and made the statement that ‘Improved understanding of ovarian tumours has been incorporated in the internationally recognised WHO classification. This has played a part in some spectacular advances in the treatment of certain rare types of ovarian tumour.’ More than anything he stressed the need for a multidisciplinary approach to the management of ovarian cancer, headed by the gynaecologist.
Specialists in gynaecological oncology, however, seem to have been few and far between: in 1990 there were 18 UK consultant subspecialists in gynaecological oncology, and 27 consultants with a special interest. Initiatives brought to the RCOG to review clinical practice against guidelines were greeted with enthusiasm by the College, who were committed to supporting better research to improve clinical guidelines, as evidenced by study groups, scientific advisory meetings, and research fellowships dedicated to the study. Between 2008 and 2015 the College Scientific Advisory Committee has produced opinion papers on many different aspects of ovarian cancer, proving that this is still an issue of great concern to those who have the ability to make a difference to women’s lives.