Target Ovarian Cancer founder and chairman Joanna Barker tells her story. Despite the fact that her mother was already being treated for ovarian cancer, when sister Sarah began to show symptoms no-one realised it was the same disease.
My sister Sarah’s road to diagnosis was long and convoluted, like many of the women who find they have ovarian cancer, which is why it is so important for women and their GPs to learn to recognise the symptoms and seek help as quickly as possible.
Sarah had been feeling unwell for a while before she finally went to see her GP. She was told it was stress but, when her symptoms persisted, she went back to her GP and was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Finally things got so bad that she signed herself off sick from work – having never taken a day off in her life – and came to stay with me for a while.
By that time her tummy was so swollen that people often asked when the baby was due. My mother had been suffering from ovarian cancer for four years but still none of us, not myself, my mother or her GP realised Sarah was showing signs of the same disease.
One of the problems with ovarian cancer is that its symptoms – such as feeling full all the time, tummy pain and persistent bloating – are similar to common gastric problems like IBS and diverticulitis. As a result diagnosis is often delayed allowing time for the cancer to spread.
In Sarah’s case, by the time she was seen by an oncologist – having consulted her GP three times in six months and been referred to a gastroenterologist – the cancer had spread throughout her abdomen and couldn’t be completely removed by surgery.
By the time of Sarah’s diagnosis, my mother’s cancer had returned. They drew strength from each other but during the last few months could only talk on the phone as they were both too ill to travel. They died within six weeks of each other in the summer of 2005.
Both my mother and sister had a genetic blood test which showed they shared a faulty BRCA1 gene; which is responsible for about 10% of ovarian cancer cases in the UK. Fortunately, when I had the same test, it found I don’t carry this abnormality but I still go for a check up with my gynaecologist twice a year just to be on the safe side.
I couldn’t save my mother or my sister but it made me determined to do something to prevent other people having to go through what my family has experienced. It’s one of the reasons why I founded Target Ovarian Cancer, a charity that is working hard to make sure women with ovarian cancer enjoy a longer and better life.
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