Tuesday 8th May is World Ovarian Cancer Day. It’s the one day where we come together to speak up about an often overlooked disease; a disease that kills more women than all other gynaecological cancers combined; a disease I feel that I almost miraculously survived.
‘Miraculously’ because in 2003 I was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer – only 19% of women who receive that diagnosis today will survive another five years.
15 years later, as an ovarian cancer survivor I am supporting the campaigning efforts of research charity Ovarian Cancer Action. To raise awareness of this devastating illness, on World Ovarian Cancer Day we will be handing out 7,400 roses across the country with cards on the stems that describe the main symptoms of ovarian cancer. The number of roses represents the number of women diagnosed each year with the disease. At present there is no screening process for ovarian cancer. Until we have one, the main priority is to educate women on the vague symptoms of ovarian cancer that do manifest themselves. Awareness is key if we’re to catch it early; the earlier the condition is diagnosed the better the outcome.
Nothing illustrates the truth of this more than the cold fact that a woman has a 90% chance of living for five years if diagnosed at stage 1, but only a 4% chance if diagnosed at stage 4.
As I learnt first-hand, an early diagnosis is a relatively rare thing in the ovarian cancer community.
I had been a nurse and a midwife but had given up work to bring up our three children. I was a busy full time mum and as a Christian very involved in our Church. I believed it was because of this busy lifestyle that I constantly felt tired. It was only after I recovered from chemotherapy did I realise how abnormal my fatigue had been. I had also had one episode of abdominal pain. Things became more serious when I started bloating. The bloating increased gradually over a few months, not helped by going on a diet as I initially thought it might be ‘middle aged spread’. I decided to visit the GP as I thought I might have a cyst or a fibroid.
The GP immediately thought I was pregnant. As I had been a midwife and had had three children I knew I wasn’t but he insisted that I did a pregnancy test. It was only the negative result that convinced him. At this point he ordered an urgent ultrasound scan. The scan revealed a tumour on both ovaries with cancer spots on my bowel, bladder and omentum. I was told that I would have a full hysterectomy followed by six sessions of chemotherapy.
Even though I had been in the medical profession the news came as a real shock. I was in a low risk category for cancer: 40 years old, a non-smoker who did moderate exercise.
At the time, I didn’t know of anyone that had survived ovarian cancer - my aunt had died of ovarian cancer (although there was no genetic link). The diagnosis was stage three ovarian cancer so I knew this was advanced and that the survival rates weren’t very good. But my consultant used to say, “I deal with individuals, not statistics.”
I knew that the medical profession would do all that they could but when I asked my husband honestly, “Do they think I’m going to die?” he answered, “They don’t know”.
Even now there are many women who don’t make it. This is why I have become a ‘Voice’ (someone who raises awareness of ovarian cancer) for Ovarian Cancer Action. With one woman dying every two hours of ovarian cancer in the UK something needs to be done. It is 15 years since I was diagnosed and I’ve been discharged from medical care for eight years, which I never thought would happen. As a Voice I give awareness talks in Wales, where survival rates are some of the poorest in the UK. I also raise money for research through cake sales, and generally support women going through treatment and beyond.
I am so grateful that I am well and able to hopefully be an encouragement and offer hope to women being diagnosed with the disease now.
On World Ovarian Cancer Day, I hope lots of women pick up a rose and get to know the symptoms of ovarian cancer. You can find our more at ovarian.org.uk