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Most of the Mary's relatives on her father's side have had cancer

It was only after being diagnosed that Mary discovered she had a family history of ovarian cancer. Here she discusses the shock of her diagnosis, and why she believes it’s so important for women to know their risk of ovarian cancer...

 I had always known that two of my aunts died young.

I was told that they’d both had ‘women’s cancer’ – which I assumed meant breast cancer. It was only when I discovered their death certificates that I realised their cause of death was actually ovarian cancer. I was devastated to find out that there might be a family link to my disease.

The first time I noticed anything wrong was when my husband Terry and I went on holiday to Turkey. All the time we were away my stomach felt bloated and my appetite seemed to be unusually small. On our return, my stomach didn’t feel any better and, over the next two months, I went to see my doctor a few times. 

The doctor suggested that I was suffering from either IBS or diverticulitis.  I tried changing my eating habits but nothing seemed to relieve my discomfort. By early September, my stomach was so swollen that I looked like I was pregnant. This time when I visited the doctor I was given an urgent appointment for an ultrasound. 

A few days later, I went back to the doctor for the results. Walking in, I could tell by her face that she didn’t have good news for me. The doctor told me that I had fluid in my abdomen and that this could be caused by my having ovarian cancer.  I was shocked. I’d always been quite fit and healthy.  How could this be happening to me?

Breaking the news

The doctor told me to go home, pack a bag and proceed straight to the hospital.  When I arrived, I was ushered to a ward and examined by nurses and doctors who told me that I would need to be admitted so that they could drain off the fluid and do some more tests. Over the next few days, tests established that I had stage IV ovarian cancer.

Telling my children was the worst thing I have ever had to do. My daughter lived in Sydney at that time and I so wanted a hug. My son, daughter-in-law and my husband Terry all cried together.  I’m fortunate to have two lovely step-daughters who both visited me in hospital. I also had lovely messages and phone calls from all the family. 

First treatment

Initially, I was told I would need 6-8 doses of chemotherapy with the possibility of having a full hysterectomy if the chemo managed to reduce the tumour.  I knew the diagnosis wasn’t good, but I plan on living as well as I can, for as long as I can.

During the next three months, I had four chemo treatments. Each session meant a day in hospital and I started losing my hair almost immediately.

When I had my next check up with the consultant he said that as I was doing well he felt I might be able to have a hysterectomy. Thankfully for me, the full operation went ahead. After a final two chemotherapy sessions my hair started to grow back (although I had to get used to my new grey colour!)  It was good not to have to wear hats or scarves anymore - or the uncomfortable wig. 

Hereditary link

Most relatives on my father’s side of the family have had cancer – including my dad’s two sisters. Because of my family history, there was a feeling of inevitability when I was diagnosed.  I was given counselling by a genetics expert who tested me for a mutation in my BRCA1/2 genes. Tests found that I have a mutation in the BRCA1 gene, and when we got the results back, she advised me to talk to my son and daughter about having the test because there was a 50/50 chance of me passing the gene on to them. Thankfully, their results were clear and this genetic mutation stops with me. 

Spreading the word

Since then I have made a remarkable recovery. I have follow-up checks every six months and my CA125 level is now down to 12.

My initial symptoms were a bloated stomach and lack of appetite.  I had no pain at all, just an uncomfortable feeling.  That’s why I want to spread the word about ovarian cancer and its symptoms whenever I can.