I am a healthy, busy mother of two young children doing a senior full-time job and worrying about childcare, time with my partner, Brexit, climate change, my parents getting older. But in January this year my life changed out of all recognition – I was diagnosed with ‘advanced’ ovarian cancer. Despite having had a major operation and being half way through 5 months of chemotherapy it is still hard to come to terms with. How did it happen? I will share my story with you in case it helps someone else.
I was 51 and feeling a little ‘menopausal’ – a bit anxious, finding it harder to sleep, irregular periods, headaches. After maybe 6 months of these symptoms I finally arranged to see a gynaecologist. I had a very long appointment with her (thank you NHS) and we chatted about all kinds of things and I felt comfortable also mentioning a couple of more recent ‘symptoms’ – an upset stomach, and what felt like an enlarged lymph node in my groin. She suggested I have a pelvic scan ‘just a routine thing really’ and off I went with my prescription for HRT. A few weeks later I realised I hadn’t been given an appointment for the scan so I chased it up. I was surprised to find myself anxious about the appointment. In hindsight I think that was because I was having some symptoms that I knew could be ovarian cancer – unusual bowel movements, needing to wee more urgently, bloating. But there was no family history and I was healthy so I assumed they couldn’t be. The Sonographer asked ‘Have you had endometriosis? ‘In my 20s but not particularly after that’ I replied, my heart suddenly thumping. ‘I did IVF in my late 30s and early 40s and had lots of scans and they didn’t suggest I had any problems’ I added. She said she could see a ‘mass’ behind one of my ovaries and she would need to show a doctor in the morning. She was kind and gave me her phone number ‘just in case no one calls you, please call me’. I cried all the way home – admitting to myself that the symptoms I had been having could mean cancer. When I saw the acute gynaecologist a few days later I was hoping it would ‘just’ be a small tumour. But he was honest with me – he was cautious of course but he said it looked like stage 3 ovarian cancer with at least two large tumours and smaller ones elsewhere..
3C ovarian cancer was confirmed after my ‘debulking’ operation a month later when all the ‘visible’ cancer was removed. I am now 4 chemotherapies into the 6 I will be having for my ‘initial’ treatment. Of course I am hoping it will be my only treatment, but I know that the statistics suggest otherwise. So many of us are diagnosed late – because we ‘miss’ the symptoms or they are too vague to seem to add up to anything serious or because we are busy and are not prioritising our health. Or listening enough to our intuition perhaps.
I have no idea yet what the new ‘normal’ will be – I am hoping there will be opportunities as well as terror and sickness. Everyone around me has been kind and generous and that helps a lot. I now have to live with the uncertainty of a prognosis that I share with too many women around the world who are living with ovarian cancer. I am optimistic that treatments are improving but ultimately we need to ensure that women – and societies – prioritise reproductive health enough to prevent the preventable.