Like many women diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Kate struggled with self-confidence and body image after her treatment had ended. Here she talks about genetic testing, dealing with her own mortality and how – with the help of her husband – she’s learnt to love herself again…
My body is a disaster zone! I’ve had a risk-reducing double mastectomy with reconstruction; I’ve got an enormous surgical scar and a permanent stoma. It took me a long time, even in a long-term and loving relationship, to gain enough confidence to believe intimacy was achievable again, but my husband and I got there together in the end.
Ovarian cancer is a sneaky thing. The symptoms can be mistaken for so many other things, especially for middle-age women.
I had spent the winter not feeling comfortable and finding it difficult to do up my shoes because I didn't seem to be able to bend. Of course, I decided it was because I was overweight and berated myself for not trying harder to lose those extra pounds.
My mother had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of 73, 10 years before me, but her symptoms hadn't been the same as mine. I was obviously aware of ovarian cancer, and had told my GP of the family history right at the start, but I didn't start to think of that being what I had until I knew I was ill with something – which came after all my early symptoms.
That year had been a difficult one for my family and I. So when I started to be able to feel a tension in the side of my abdomen, I thought it was stress-related and would soon go away. When it didn't I made an appointment to see the GP. She said that she could feel my liver and quizzed me about my drinking habits. Slightly indignant (I have a lot of weaknesses but drinking too much has never been one of them) we discussed my usual intake. She referred me to the hospital for blood tests relating to liver disease. They came back clear but she asked for them to be repeated. Again, they were in the normal range so she referred me to the hospital for an ultrasound scan.
When the results came back I knew from the GP's manner that it wasn't good news. She told me that they were concerned about the results and that she was putting in a 'two-week referral to rule out cancer'. When I finally saw the gynaecology consultant I was very seriously ill indeed. I was 53 and had Grade III, Stage IV ovarian cancer.
One step at a time
Naturally I was very frightened, but in some ways it was a relief to finally know what we were dealing with and get on with the treatment. My husband and I decided not to tell anyone until we had processed it properly ourselves. The hardest thing of all, and what kept me awake at nights, was the prospect of telling our children. I knew the pain, distress and fear I was about to cause them and I still get distressed when I remember the visits we made to tell them in person. After that, I placed myself completely in the hands of the oncology team. I took one very small step at a time and didn't think about anything beyond the next appointment, treatment or procedure.
I had always made sure the medical team knew about my mother's history of ovarian cancer, but without anyone else in the family having had it to our knowledge, they didn't seem to think there was necessarily a link. Then, shortly before my surgery, my older sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her team decided they would recommend genetic screening given that there were two ovarian cancer cases and one breast cancer in two generations of the same family. She went through the counselling first and then tested positive for BRCA 2. I then did the same but I knew that I would also test positive.
I worry about the genetic link; our oldest son and the father of our wonderful granddaughter has tested positive for the BRCA 2 gene. But I am blessed with hugely supportive family and friends, and an utterly wonderful husband, and I know if anything does happen to me, they will all take care of each other, and they will survive!
If I could offer advice to other women it would be to ‘hang on in there’. More and more is becoming known about ovarian cancer and the prognosis isn't necessarily as bleak as it feels at first. By raising awareness of ovarian cancer, we can increase earlier diagnosis and generate more funding for research – which could help our daughters and granddaughters in the future.
These days, I’m much better at enjoying the present; I don't take life for granted but I don't dwell on my own mortality either. At one point I didn't know if I would live to see any grandchildren or see my children settled or married, but I love the life I have now. Everything else I get to experience is a bonus!