Dr Hilary Morrison took early retirement after 30 years as a GP following her diagnosis with ovarian cancer at the age of 54. She is a member of our GP Advisory Board, which is working to increase early diagnosis of the disease. Hilary is married to a doctor and is the mother of two adult children.
I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the summer of 2013. I had all the warning symptoms: bloating, lower abdominal pain, passing urine more often, feeling full and change of bowel habit but they weren’t preventing me from doing things. That’s the trouble with ovarian cancer symptoms: they’re there but they’re not devastating. GPs are the worst patients, as doctors are always too busy looking after everyone else to think about themselves. There are always patients to see; the show has to go on.
When I eventually booked an appointment on my next day off the GP found a large ovarian cyst and sent me for a scan. Unfortunately things developed very quickly and I had emergency surgery that weekend.
The diagnosis was such a shock
The diagnosis was such a shock: you just don’t know what to think. You don’t see it coming, you’re just the same as everyone else. I was a completely shocked, horrified patient. I was terrified and didn’t know where to turn.
I’d been sitting on my symptoms for quite a while so when I was diagnosed I was at a late stage (3C) with a poor prognosis, which is why I took early retirement. Things initially looked very grim: I was told I’d be lucky to live a year, so my life and my family just fell apart for a while. I was put on a trial regime of weekly chemo and because they couldn’t remove the entire tumour they gave me a drug called Avastin for a year as well.
My chemotherapy finished in August 2014. Soon after, I tested positive for a mutation in the BRCA gene. About 15 per cent of women who develop high grade serous (one of the more common forms) or endometrioid ovarian cancer have a mutation of either their BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. The BRCA mutation also puts you at very high risk of developing breast cancer and 9 months ago I had preventative bilateral mastectomies.
I have not needed any further treatment for my ovarian cancer yet and have done much better than I expected to. I know I’m not cured though. I’ll be back on treatment at some point so I just take it day by day. I don’t think you ever get your fitness back completely but I was able to keep active during treatment. I’m fairly pig headed, which is probably why I continued going to work with the tummy pains and other symptoms rather than seeing my GP earlier when I was first diagnosed. I regret this very much as if I had sought help earlier my cancer might have been diagnosed early enough to be curable.
A lot of support
You can feel very lost and alone when you are diagnosed. Target Ovarian Cancer offer a lot of support to women. Even though I used to be a doctor I’m human like everyone else and have the same needs and fears.
I got to know the charity through a really helpful get together day where they arranged for a medical expert to speak about ovarian cancer. That may sound surprising but even though you’re a doctor, you’re not an expert. As a GP you have a good, safe knowledge of everything but you can’t know the ins and outs of all the treatments. That’s not what you do.
I got to know a lot of women through the charity. They really do involve the patients in a really positive way, which I thought was great. They’re also doing a lot to increase awareness among GPs. Before I was diagnosed I completed the GP online learning modules which Target Ovarian Cancer introduced. I think about a third of GPs have done it now, which might not sound like a lot but it adds up to thousands of doctors.
Something to focus on
One of the women I met through the charity encouraged me to get involved. It gave me something to focus on and gave me hope that something good might come out of this. There are nine people on the Advisory Board including GPs, doctors, a practice nurse lead and an oncologist. It really just boils down to trying to put our heads together and think what else can be done to make doctors more aware of ovarian cancer so we can get the message out to them.
Ovarian cancer isn’t something GPs diagnose often. In my 30 years as a doctor I think I diagnosed three or four cases. To be fair to GPs you have to deal with everything, which means that your mind becomes a massive radar of diagnoses.
You do hear a lot about people being fobbed off with a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which is something you see a lot as a GP, but IBS isn’t something you usually see as something new after 40. If symptoms of ovarian cancer are new and they’ve persisted for more than three weeks then it should be considered.
Tell your GP
If you’re worried that you may have ovarian cancer tell your GP when you see them. Sometimes it might not be something they’re thinking of straight away. Only 3 per cent of women are very confident in what the symptoms are so you can see how months could pass by before visiting the doctor. There isn’t a screening test as such: you just have to be aware of the symptoms.
Another thing that Target Ovarian Cancer are trying to do is convince the Government to start a high profile campaign about the symptoms of ovarian cancer. Campaigns like that really do make a difference. We’ve seen it with smoking, drink driving and breast cancer. 75 per cent of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed when they’re incurable but if it’s diagnosed early then 90 per cent of cases are curable. That’s a pretty strong argument for a big effort by everyone.
It’s also really important that women know that a cervical smear isn’t a test for ovarian cancer. You wouldn’t believe the number of women who think if they’ve had a smear that they’ve been checked. Even my mother said to me, “Why didn’t you go for your smears?” I did!
Hilary'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. Have you got an ovarian cancer story? Please share it with us by filling in the form here.