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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!