Hindsight is perfect – just ask Jennifer. She knows better than anyone how easy it can be to explain away the warning signs of ovarian cancer...
My son is a consultant gynae-oncologist specialising in ovarian cancer and yet I still didn’t know I had it! When you get to 68 years old, it’s easy to pass things off as just another part of getting older. It’s only when you look back that you realise that the things you thought were signs of middle age - the incontinence and weight gain - were actually symptoms of something more serious.
For maybe a year or more, I noticed I was becoming a bit incontinent – not getting to the toilet quite in time. I was going to the loo before I set off anywhere and then again when I got there. I also started to get diarrhoea, but I have a history of food intolerances and misdiagnosed coeliac disease, so I just thought it was that. I was also feeling really consistently tired, and while my doctor was very thorough investigating this, I didn’t mention any of my other symptoms because I’d explained them away.
At the same time I noticed I was getting a bit ‘big’. I wear jeans a lot and they were slowly getting tighter. One day I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, ‘the last time I looked like this, I was pregnant’.
After a short holiday to France - during which I was very unwell - I decided to make an appointment to go and see my GP. She took one look at my stomach and told me to get on the couch to have an abdominal exam. She hugged me and said she thought it was bad news, but that she would need to give me more blood tests. That was Tuesday.
She rang me back on Friday to tell me she had organised an appointment with a consultant. I had a scan the following Thursday and then an operation on Monday. It all happened very quickly. I had incredible treatment but the speed of it was a lot to deal with. It was a shock.
The op was a long one – about five hours - and they removed everything they could. I now have a stoma. My official diagnosis was stage II high-grade serous ovarian cancer.
After the surgery I was then given an appointment at a local hospital for chemotherapy – six cycles of paclitaxel and carboplatin. Since then I’ve gotten better and stronger. I was especially pleased to finally get home – although when I got back I realised how many jobs I needed to do around the house!
At the moment I’m clear and having regular check-ups.
The stoma was tough to get used to, but I think the most difficult thing was the shock of it all. You have to face the reality of the whole thing in the end, but to suddenly have a cancer diagnosis - that’s a lot to face up to, a lot to take in.
Recently my GP told me about a cancer support centre that’s local to me. I pay a small subscription and I get some free therapies – I’ve had a full body massage, reflexology – that really helped my neuropathy in my toes – and my husband has had some counselling from the centre. I think it would have been nice to know that these things were available from the start, when I was in hospital, or waiting for chemo.
Knitting for England
Before I got sick I used to help kids reading in schools, which I loved. Nowadays I read a lot, I watch TV – I’ve been working hard to catch up with Coronation Street – and I knit. I could knit for England! My husband and I also enjoy gardening. I was so busy with work for so many years that now I just enjoy being at home. My daughter and grandchildren live nearby as well.
I think raising awareness of ovarian cancer is vital. I could have gone to the doctor months sooner, and I will never know if that might have meant the difference between having a colostomy bag or not.
Women explain things away a lot. Something as small as not being able to get to the toilet before leaking; it’s always explained away – especially if you’ve had kids already.
I’d been to the doctor a few times before my diagnosis because I couldn’t understand why I was so tired. The doctor was so thorough but I didn’t mention the ovarian cancer symptoms because I’d explained them away. I then didn’t go back for a while because I feared that I would look like a hypochondriac. When I returned with a swollen stomach she spotted the problem immediately. I believe her alertness and up to date knowledge saved my life. Knowing about ovarian cancer and the symptoms is crucial. We need to keep drumming that into people.