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After ovarian cancer cost Helen her job, she retrained in counselling

After being diagnosed with both ovarian and cervical cancer, Helen could easily have let it dampen her usual sunny outlook. Instead, the 56-year-old used her diagnosis as an opportunity to retrain and take up volunteering. She wants to let others know there is life after ovarian cancer, and why - for her - it’s important to have no regrets...

They’ve told me that my illness is incurable, but I don’t keep looking over my shoulder. I’ve got far too much living to do!

 

Diagnosis

I was working in India – recruiting NHS doctors for the UK - when I began suffering from ‘cystitis-like’ symptoms. When I got back to the UK I made an appointment to see a doctor, and ended up going through almost a year of investigations for bladder cancer. After finding nothing worrying, they told me I’d probably just passed a kidney stone.

A year later I went back out to India and ended up having the bladder symptoms again. I went back to my GP. The doctor asked if I had any pain - which I did - and sent me for an internal ultrasound. The scan detected early ovarian cancer.

Despite the ultrasound results, I had difficulty getting a follow-up appointment. I was referred to a gynaecologist who didn’t think I had cancer. I had a CA125 test - which came back slightly elevated. The gynaecologist thought it was cysts and was going to give me keyhole surgery. I didn’t want that – I’d had a cyst before and wasn’t convinced that this was the same. I wanted her to speak about it with someone else.

On the Monday the gynaecologist called me to say I would be referred to an oncology team.

Double blow

I was scheduled for surgery, and after the operation they explained that I had a tumour attached to my bowel on the left side, and a smaller one attached to my right ovary. I also had early stage womb cancer. I underwent a radical hysterectomy, plus removal of my appendix and part of my omentum.

It took me a long time to recover from the operation because the scar didn’t heal very well. That then delayed the start of chemo, which stressed me out. I hated the thought of chemo, but I also wanted to start it as soon as possible.

Back again

I ended up losing my job because of long-term sickness.

Rather than let it get me down, I decided to study. After doing really well on a Macmillan Cancer Support Course, I decided that - aged 56 - I was going to go to university. I ended up studying counselling and got a distinction at the end of the course. At the same time, I also qualified with CRUSE bereavement care and started volunteering as a counsellor with them.

I was just starting to think about setting up a private practice, when a routine CA125 test came back elevated. For me, this test is a very strong indicator. I went in for a CT scan and found out that the cancer had come back.

Grasping opportunities

After another operation, I started on my second line of chemo – carboplatin and paclitaxel. This time I lost my hair, which I hadn’t done before. It also really affected my joints. I’ve had knee problems for a while and this was exacerbated.

Still, despite everything, I’m determined not to keep looking over my shoulder. We recently bought a caravan and I’ve got a puppy now. I’m still running a private practice for counselling, and we also have an allotment where we grow our own veg.

Life is short and I’ve always lived by the phrase; ‘There are no regrets worse than those caused by opportunities lost’. I make sure to grasp every opportunity.

Thank you

The best support you get is from other people. I use an online forum for those affected by ovarian cancer a lot, and those women understand. We all have different experiences, but we all understand.

I want to share my story because ovarian cancer symptoms can be so quiet. I want people to stand up for themselves and take care of their own health. It’s okay to stamp your feet and demand things for yourself.

I also want people to know that there is life after ovarian cancer. I know someone who has been in remission for 17 years. She’s had a recurrence, but she’s still here - living.

Lastly, I really want to say thank you to charities like Target Ovarian Cancer. You have a voice for us when we don’t feel able to have a voice. There were days on treatment when I couldn’t form a sentence. You were out there speaking up for me. Thank you!

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