Tatum, 39, was in the middle of treatment for breast cancer in America when her mum Barbara was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer back home in the UK. Barbara had spent months repeatedly – and uncharacteristically – going back to her GP with symptoms and worries but a diagnosis of ovarian cancer was never explored until it was too late. Tatum sadly lost her mum less than a year later.
Mum died when she was 60. That’s far too young. She was diagnosed in November 2011 and she passed away in September 2012. Those months seemed very quick and like an eternity all at the same.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2011 when I was 35. Mum was so amazing when I was diagnosed. I had been living in America for 15 years, gallivanting around trying to do as many different jobs as I could. One of them was a talk show – kind of like Loose Women, but it was a gay version and we drank wine. That was a fun show to do.
Mum and I talked every week. She was very much in my life, even though I was far away. In the States you have an annual check up where you have a pap smear, a breast exam…that kind of thing. My awesome doctor felt a lump and immediately scheduled a mammogram and an ultrasound. Even though it wasn’t showing on the mammogram it did show on the ultrasound. I’d had my chemo and was going to be starting radiation therapy when we found out about Mum.
Emergency room diagnosis
I flew back and realised I’d be moving back to England to be with my mum and my sister who has special needs and needs a lot of support. But I knew I had to get my treatment finished. I completed my radiation in the States and had my ovaries removed then came back to the UK.
The cancer was at stage 4 when mum got her diagnosis in the emergency room. It wasn’t until it was an emergency situation that they got around to diagnosing her. I was so angry with that. What took them so long? She had been to the doctor with stomach pains and other symptoms and was told that it was probably Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
It seems to be a pretty common assumption by GPs when women present these kinds of symptoms, even though IBS is a really uncommon thing to just suddenly begin after the age of 50. I don’t understand the “wait and see” approach at all.
My mum never ever went to the doctor. Her solution to anything to do with health was ‘drink some water, take a deep breath, go for a walk’. The first alert for the GP should have been “there’s someone who never comes in… and she’s coming in more than once”. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for her to keep going back and not being listened to.
Strong family history of breast and ovarian cancer
It wasn’t just the symptoms that should have got their attention. Mum had a very strong family history of breast and ovarian cancer. The doctor knew I had just been diagnosed, that she had two sisters who’d been diagnosed with premenopausal breast cancer and an aunt with ovarian cancer: they really should have been considering that possibility.
BRCA1 and BRCA2 are the breast and ovarian cancer genetic mutations. In our family, we’re something called BRCAX. That’s when they can’t find the mutation but they can see from the family tree that it’s there. The X is kind of like “hold this space until future technology finds it.”
Mum was really good at checking her breast health because of what had happened with her sisters…but no one had ever talked to her about ovarian cancer. She thought that if you had children it protected you against it. It just shows you how much needs to be done among women and GPs in terms of increasing awareness. It’s so important.
Awareness of symptoms
We shouldn’t wait until it’s too late. A woman with a family history should know to be aware of the symptoms such as persistent bloating, tiredness, constant abdominal pressure, always needing to go to the loo and weight loss. Then she could come in at the very first signs and the doctors could immediately order tests to rule out ovarian cancer.
Catching ovarian cancer early makes a huge difference.
For mum’s funeral, instead of flowers, she requested that money be donated to ovarian cancer research. I was looking for what to do with the donations and that’s when I found Target Ovarian Cancer. They do such great work. I did the Walk for One Million and a skydive on the anniversary of Mum’s death, which is something I never imagined I would ever do in a million years but it was so wonderful.
I’m also working with a cancer support organisation called Shine, which is a group for younger adults – men and women – with all kinds of cancer.
I’ve started to do a podcast for them called Not Your Grandma’s Cancer Show. I’m getting all clear on my scans now so I feel very lucky. I really want to have children. I saved some embryos before I had my treatment. They’re in LA and I’m currently pleading with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to let me bring them into the country.
I want to be a mum, although it is heartbreaking to know my mum will never meet her grandchildren.
Tatum's story was originally published in Standard Issue Magazine and written by Sam Wonfor. Please visit their website for further coverage of Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month 2015. Have you got an ovarian cancer story? Please share it with us by filling in the form here.
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