STEP 4: Treatment

Step 4 describes the optimal treatments for ovarian cancer, the training and experience required of the treating clinicians and the health service characteristics required for optimal cancer care.

All health services must have clinical governance systems that meet the following integral requirements:

  • identifying safety and quality measures
  • monitoring and reporting on performance and outcomes
  • identifying areas for improvement in safety and quality (ACSQHC 2020).

Step 4 outlines the treatment options for ovarian cancer. For detailed clinical information on treatment options refer to these resources:

The intent of treatment can be defined as one of the following:

  • curative
  • anti-cancer therapy to improve quality of life and/or longevity without expectation of cure
  • symptom palliation.

The treatment intent should be established in a multidisciplinary setting, documented in the patient’s medical record and conveyed to the patient and carer as appropriate.

The potential benefits need to be balanced against the morbidity and risks of treatment.

The lead clinician should discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each treatment and associated potential side effects with the patient and their carer or family before treatment consent is obtained and begins so the patient can make an informed decision. Supportive care services should also be considered during this decision-making process. Patients should be asked about their use of (current or intended) complementary therapies (see Appendix D).

Timeframes for starting treatment should be informed by evidence-based guidelines where they exist. The treatment team should recognise that shorter timeframes for appropriate consultations and treatment can promote a better experience for patients.

Initiate advance care planning discussions with patients before treatment begins (this could include appointing a substitute decision-maker and completing an advance care directive). Formally involving a palliative care team/service may benefit any patient, so it is important to know and respect each person’s preference (AHMAC 2011).

Except for early-stage and well-differentiated disease, patients are usually treated with surgery and chemotherapy.

Surgery may be used to stage the cancer, and as a form of therapy. The type of surgery offered will depend on several factors such as the stage of the disease, the patient’s age, performance status and desire or not to retain fertility.

Women with early-stage disease should have staging surgery that includes a hysterectomy and bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (NCI 2019). In women who want to bear children but have apparent stage I tumours, unilateral salpingo-oophorectomy with comprehensive surgical staging may be a reasonable treatment option because this is associated with a low risk of cancer recurrence (NCI 2019).

Women diagnosed with more advanced stage (II and III) disease may benefit from a total abdominal hysterectomy and bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy and more extensive cytoreductive surgery before chemotherapy (NCI 2019).

Some patients with advanced disease (III and IV) who are deemed unlikely to achieve optimal debulking or who have medical contraindications to surgery may benefit from chemotherapy before surgery.

Timeframe for starting treatment

Surgery should be conducted within four weeks of the suspected or confirmed diagnosis and within two weeks of the MDM.

Training and experience required of the surgeon

Gynaecological oncologist (CGO) with adequate training and experience in gynaecological cancer surgery as well as institutional cross-credentialing and agreed scope of practice within this area.

Documented evidence of the surgeon’s training and experience, including their specific (sub-specialty) experience with ovarian cancer and procedures to be undertaken, should be available.

Health service characteristics

To provide safe and quality care for patients having surgery, health services should have these features:

  • critical care support
  • in-house access to radiology
  • 24-hour medical staff availability
  • 24-hour operating room access and intensive care unit
  • diagnostic imaging
  • pathology
  • nuclear medicine imaging.

There is strong evidence to suggest that high-volume hospitals have better clinical outcomes for complex cancer surgery such as ovarian resections (Wright et al. 2017, 2019). Centres that do not have sufficient caseloads should establish processes to routinely refer surgical cases to a high-volume centre.

The appropriateness and type of chemotherapy or drug therapy will be determined by the multidisciplinary team. A number of patients may benefit from chemotherapy or drug therapy:

  • before surgery (interval debulking) in suspected stage III or IV ovarian cancer, to reduce the volume of the tumour before surgery
  • after surgery in all stages except where the cancer was clearly confined to one or both ovaries and considered low risk for recurring
  • after surgery for stage III ovarian cancer where no residual disease has been left. Some patients may be considered for a combination of intraperitoneal and intravenous chemotherapy.

In selected cases, chemotherapy may be considered as part of primary treatment.

Intraperitoneal chemotherapy should be provided in a centre with appropriate expertise, and potential toxicities should be fully explained to the patient and her family (Cancer Australia 2014).

Timeframes for starting treatment

  • Neoadjuvant chemotherapy should begin within two weeks of the MDM.
  • Adjuvant chemotherapy should begin within four weeks of surgery.

Training and experience required of the appropriate specialists

Medical oncologists must have training and experience of this standard:

  • Fellow of the Royal Australian College of Physicians (or equivalent)
  • adequate training and experience that enables institutional credentialing and agreed scope of practice within this area (ACSQHC 2015)
  • appropriate expertise if providing IP chemotherapy.

Cancer nurses should have accredited training in these areas:

  • anti-cancer treatment administration
  • specialised nursing care for patients undergoing cancer treatments, including side effects and symptom management
  • the handling and disposal of cytotoxic waste (ACSQHC 2020).

Systemic therapy should be prepared by a pharmacist whose background includes this experience:

  • adequate training in systemic therapy medication, including dosing calculations according to protocols, formulations and/or preparation.

In a setting where no medical oncologist is locally available (e.g. regional or remote areas), some components of less complex therapies may be delivered by a general practitioner or nurse with training and experience that enables credentialing and agreed scope of practice within this area. This should be in accordance with a detailed treatment plan or agreed protocol, and with communication as agreed with the medical oncologist or as clinically required.

The training and experience of the appropriate specialist should be documented.

Health service characteristics

To provide safe and quality care for patients having systemic therapy, health services should have these features:

  • a clearly defined path to emergency care and advice after hours
  • access to diagnostic pathology including basic haematology and biochemistry, and imaging
  • cytotoxic drugs prepared in a pharmacy with appropriate facilities
  • occupational health and safety guidelines regarding handling of cytotoxic drugs, including preparation, waste procedures and spill kits (eviQ 2019b)
  • guidelines and protocols to deliver treatment safely (including dealing with extravasation of drugs)
  • coordination for combined therapy with radiation therapy, especially where facilities are not co-located
  • appropriate molecular pathology access

Some women with ovarian cancer may benefit from radiation therapy for symptomatic relief and palliation of metastatic or recurrent disease (Jiang et al. 2018). In selected cases, radiation may also be considered as part of primary treatment.

Timeframe for starting treatment

Radiation therapy should begin within four weeks of the MDM.

Training and experience required of the appropriate specialists

Radiation oncologist (FRANZCR or equivalent) with adequate training and experience that enables institutional credentialing and agreed scope of practice within this area. The radiation oncologist must also be a core member of a gynaecological oncology multidisciplinary team.

The training and experience of the radiation oncologist should be documented.

Health service unit characteristics

To provide safe and quality care for patients having radiation therapy, health services should have these features:

  • linear accelerator (LINAC) capable of image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT)
  • dedicated CT planning
  • access to MRI and PET imaging
  • automatic record-verify of all radiation treatments delivered
  • a treatment planning system
  • trained medical physicists, radiation therapists and nurses with radiation therapy experience
  • coordination for combined therapy with systemic therapy, especially where facilities are not co-located
  • participation in Australian Clinical Dosimetry Service audits
  • an incident management system linked with a quality management system

Some women with ovarian cancer may benefit from the addition of targeted therapies:

  • PARP inhibitors, which inhibit the enzyme poly ADP ribose polymerase – these may typically benefit patients with gene mutations
  • angiogenesis inhibitors – these prevent the growth of blood vessels related to tumours

Emerging therapies showing promise for treating ovarian cancer include DNA-damaged pathway inhibitors. Other therapies may be considered within the confines of a clinical trial.

Immunotherapy has not been shown to be of benefit and should not be used outside of a clinical trial.

Early referral to palliative care can improve the quality of life for people with cancer and, in some cases, may be associated with survival benefits (Haines 2011; Temel at al. 2010; Zimmermann et al. 2014). This is particularly true for cancers with poor prognosis.

The lead clinician should ensure patients receive timely and appropriate referral to palliative care services. Referral should be based on need rather than prognosis. Emphasise the value of palliative care in improving symptom management and quality of life to patients and their carers.

The ‘Dying to Talk’ resource may help health professionals when initiating discussions with patients about future care needs (see ‘More information’). Ensure that carers and families receive information, support and guidance about their role in palliative care (Palliative Care Australia 2018).

Patients, with support from their family or carer and treating team, should be encouraged to consider appointing a substitute decision-maker and to complete an advance care directive.

Refer to Step 6 for a more detailed description of managing patients with recurrent, residual or metastatic disease.

More information

These online resources are useful:

The team should support the patient to participate in research or clinical trials where available and appropriate. Many emerging treatments are only available on clinical trials that may require referral to certain trial centres.

For more information visit the Cancer Australia website.

See validated screening tools mentioned in Principle 4 ‘Supportive care’.

A number of specific challenges and needs may arise for patients at this time:

  • assistance for dealing with emotional and psychological issues, including body image concerns, fatigue, quitting smoking, traumatic experiences, existential anxiety, treatment phobias, anxiety/depression, interpersonal problems and sexuality concerns
  • potential isolation from normal support networks, particularly for rural patients who are staying away from home for treatment
  • management of physical symptoms such as pain, fatigue, nausea and vomiting – some patients are bothered more by nausea than by vomiting; managing both is important for improving quality of life
  • bowel dysfunction, gastrointestinal or abdominal symptoms, which may need monitoring and assessment
  • malnutrition risk as identified by a validated malnutrition screening tool or unintentional weight loss of greater than 5 per cent usual body weight
  • loss of fertility, surgically or chemically induced menopause, reduced sexual interest and sexual dysfunction, such as vaginal dryness, dyspareunia, atrophic vaginitis and pain (these issues require sensitive discussion and possible referral to a clinician with skills in the relevant area [Harris 2019]; sexual dysfunction can be a long-term complication for many patients, persisting throughout survivorship [Candy et al. 2016])
  • early-onset menopause – the risk continues after chemotherapy and not only immediately following treatment
  • chemotherapy-related toxicity (e.g. neuropathy and alopecia)
  • assessment and management from a pelvic floor physiotherapist
  • lower limb lymphoedema if a lymphadenectomy has been performed, which can restrict mobility – referral to a physiotherapist or trained lymphoedema massage specialist may be appropriate
  • decline in mobility or functional status as a result of treatment
  • assistance with beginning or resuming regular exercise with referral to an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist (COSA 2018; Hayes et al. 2019).

Early involvement of general practitioners may lead to improved cancer survivorship care following acute treatment. General practitioners can address many supportive care needs through good communication and clear guidance from the specialist team (Emery 2014).

Patients, carers and families may have these additional issues and needs:

  • financial issues related to loss of income (through reduced capacity to work or loss of work) and additional expenses as a result of illness or treatment
  • advance care planning, which may involve appointing a substitute decision-maker and completing an advance care directive
  • legal issues (completing a will, care of dependent children) or making an insurance, superannuation or social security claim on the basis of terminal illness or permanent disability.

Cancer Council’s 13 11 20 information and support line can assist with information and referral to local support services.

For more information on supportive care and needs that may arise for different population groups, see Appendices A and B, and special population groups.

Rehabilitation may be required at any point of the care pathway. If it is required before treatment, it is referred to as prehabilitation (see section 3.6.1).

All members of the multidisciplinary team have an important role in promoting rehabilitation. Team members may include occupational therapists, speech pathologists, dietitians, social workers, psychologists, physiotherapists, exercise physiologists and rehabilitation specialists.

To maximise the safety and therapeutic effect of exercise for people with cancer, all team members should recommend that people with cancer work towards achieving, and then maintaining, recommended levels of exercise and physical activity as per relevant guidelines. Exercise should be prescribed and delivered under the direction of an accredited exercise physiologist or physiotherapist with experience in cancer care (Vardy et al. 2019). The focus of intervention from these health professionals is tailoring evidence-based exercise recommendations to the individual patient’s needs and abilities, with a focus on the patient transitioning to ongoing self-managed exercise.

Other issues that may need to be dealt with include managing cancer-related fatigue, improving physical endurance, achieving independence in daily tasks, optimising nutritional intake, returning to work and ongoing adjustment to cancer and its sequels. Referrals to dietitians, psychosocial support, return-to-work programs and community support organisations can help in managing these issues.

The lead or nominated clinician should take responsibility for these tasks:

  • discussing treatment options with patients and carers, including the treatment intent and expected outcomes, and providing a written version of the plan and any referrals
  • providing patients and carers with information about the possible side effects of treatment, managing symptoms between active treatments, how to access care, self-management strategies and emergency contacts
  • encouraging patients to use question prompt lists and audio recordings, and to have a support person present to aid informed decision making
  • initiating a discussion about advance care planning and involving carers or family if the patient wishes

The general practitioner plays an important role in coordinating care for patients, including helping to manage side effects and other comorbidities, and offering support when patients have questions or worries. For most patients, simultaneous care provided by their general practitioner is very important.

The lead clinician, in discussion with the patient’s general practitioner, should consider these points:

  • the general practitioner’s role in symptom management, supportive care and referral to local services
  • using a chronic disease management plan and mental health care management plan
  • how to ensure regular and timely two-way communication about:
    • the treatment plan, including intent and potential side effects
    • supportive and palliative care requirements
    • the patient’s prognosis and their understanding of this
    • enrolment in research or clinical trials
    • changes in treatment or medications
    • the presence of an advance care directive or appointment of a substitute decision-maker
    • recommendations from the multidisciplinary team.
More information

Refer to Principle 6 ‘Communication’ for communication skills training programs and resources.