Only 35% of women with ovarian cancer are predicted to survive for 10 years or more. Clare Godfrey is one of the lucky few. As the 10-year anniversary of her diagnosis approaches, Clare explains how cancer helped her to re-evaluate her life, and why she’s still as passionate as ever about raising awareness.
I met Nick in 1996 and in 2000 we got engaged. I’d always wanted to get married and have children before I turned 40, so when I turned 39 in 2002, I realised that we’d better start thinking about starting a family sooner rather than later.
Nick and I were married on the 14th June, 2003, and we quickly settled down to married life and began trying for a baby. I always knew that time was not on our side because fertility starts to decrease after the age of 30. Whilst having a routine smear in December 2005, a nurse suggested that we make an appointment for fertility testing.
We were given an appointment with the local hospital and – over the next few months – we both had tests to monitor ovulation and sperm count. Eventually I was booked to have an exploratory laparoscopy - a 20-minute keyhole procedure.
My surgery was scheduled for the 11th of July, and I arranged for a friend to pick me up afterwards and take me home. However, when I came around after the operation I realised that I was on a hospital ward. I knew something wasn’t right and kept asking the nurse why I’d been taken to a ward. I was told the doctor would explain what was going on. I remained in hospital overnight, drifting in and out of consciousness.
The next morning a doctor appeared by my bedside and drew the curtain. He explained that surgeons were unhappy with what they had seen on the laparoscopy. After performing an emergency opening, they had taken a biopsy and sent this off for tests. I asked whether the biopsy was being tested for cancer and the doctor told me that it was.
That was the moment my whole world fell apart. Not only was I dealing with a cancer diagnosis but – as they would be performing a full hysterectomy - I would never be able to have children of my own. I would go into the menopause aged 42.
Learning to cope
I had my hysterectomy on 22 August 2006. Before the operation you’re given all sorts of leaflets and disclaimers. The main thing that you’re told is that you may have to have a colostomy bag. I remember feeling like my life could never be normal if this happened to me. I was in complete denial. Luckily, the first words I heard after my operation were “no bag”.
I was scheduled to start chemotherapy on 5 of October. Three days later I felt as if I’d been dropped from a great height. I couldn’t eat or sleep, and after one week I completely fell apart - I just cried hysterically. I was in a very black hole that I felt I would never come out of. Fortunately, with a lot of help from friends and family I got through the bad days. Week 1 was terrible but by week 3 I was able to plan things – like going out for a meal or a trip to the theatre. It gave me something to look forward to.
You only live once
One of the worst parts of treatment was losing my hair – especially as I’d always taken great pride in my appearance. It helped that I arranged to have a wig that was very similar to my own hair. I ended up naming my wig ‘Sarah’ and every time I was out of the house I’d ask whether Sarah was “okay”. It was a great way of checking that my wig wasn’t crooked in public!
Three weeks after finishing chemotherapy I went back to work. Finally, in 2012, I was told that I no longer needed to have any more check-ups.
Since my diagnosis people have asked me whether I had any symptoms of ovarian cancer. Looking back, I realise I had suffered stomach aches, bloating, and painful periods, but I’d always just put it down to my age. Perhaps if I had known the symptoms I’d have gone to the doctor sooner. I was lucky in some ways that this was found at all. It so easily could have been too late. If I’d never gone for those fertility tests, who knows where I would have been.
The 10-year survival rate for ovarian cancer is very low, and I know I’m one of the lucky ones. Early diagnosis is always crucial, but especially with ovarian cancer. I think part of the devastation of an ovarian cancer diagnosis is knowing you might never have children or grandchildren of your own. It’s hard because a lot of my friends have grandchildren now.
Despite all that, life since my diagnosis has been good. I’m busy working full time, enjoying holidays, socialising and playing badminton - I’ve even won some trophies! You only live once and having ovarian cancer has forced me to re-evaluate things. I know I’m living a very lucky life.