March is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month and Target Ovarian Cancer has set a ‘50s Challenge’ asking people to spread the word about the symptoms of ovarian cancer to 50 people and to raise at least £50 for the charity through doing so, because 1 in 50 women will develop ovarian cancer.
So here’s something you might not know about me: I had ovarian cancer when I got pregnant for the first time in 2005. Getting pregnant at the ripe old age of 38 seemed like some small miracle and I still couldn’t believe it when I met my lovely midwife for the first time - I felt a bit silly almost as if I was making it up and wasting her time. I felt even sillier mentioning to her that I could feel a lump on my left hand side and that it seemed to be getting bigger. She assured me it was probably nothing and that if there was anything at all to worry about it would show up on my scan.
I went along for my first scan at about 11 weeks, convinced that the lump had grown. The craziness of seeing that little wriggling baby on the monitor completely took away any concern that I might have for the lumpy ovary that showed up, especially as the radiographer assured me that it was probably just a cyst and that lots of women had ovarian cysts and that they never bothered them. We left the hospital clutching our grainy black and white picture of the baby feeling reassured that I would be receiving an appointment to see a consultant, partly because of my age and partly because of the cyst.
The appointment came and by now I was about 15 weeks pregnant and the cyst was up by my ribcage and I could move it around. It felt like the size of an apple, a squidgy sort of apple - I got my other half to feel it, my mum, my aunt: ‘Hmm… definitely something not right’ they all said. We went into the consultant’s room, who initially thought I was being a hypochondriac, and she had a feel and said ‘That can’t possibly be your ovary, that must be your kidney’. Suddenly looking more serious she sent me down to the scan room, where the scan did indeed show that the cyst had gone from being golf ball sized to tennis ball sized within the last four weeks. Ah, now it got serious! How it all changed then - I’d be in within two weeks to have it removed. Hurrah! Relief! Not at the prospect of surgery but at being taken seriously.
Then the reality began to dawn on us. I was going to have to have a general anaesthetic, my abdomen cut open from above my navel to below my bikini line and all while our precious baby was trying to grow. It happened so fast from then on that we didn’t have much time to think about it before I was in the gynaecology ward and being gowned up ready for surgery. My operation was the last one of the day and it was undoubtedly the longest day of my life.
My surgeon was, and is still, a god amongst men. He told me that the cyst had been the size and shape of a pear and that there had been a small tear in it, so it could have leaked - it was going off to pathology where they found that it was what was called a mucinous cyst. He told me there was no need to worry at all about any danger to baby who was safely cocooned inside me and that because of the stitches and my scar that I would have to have an Elective Caesarean to deliver the baby three weeks early as they wanted to start me on chemotherapy six weeks after that.
I knew my baby’s birthday four months before he was born. ‘When’s your due date?’, ‘he’ll be born on the 10th, probably about 10am’. Crazy eh? And he was. My surgeon delivered him and he was the most beautiful perfect thing I had ever seen (my baby, although the surgeon was pretty awesome too!). I was able to breastfeed for the first six weeks, begging them to let me have two weeks more before starting chemo. I remember looking at my baby on that morning as I fed him for the last time and that was the worst thing for me. Not being able to feed him again. Still gets me.
I had six lots of intravenous chemo, at three weekly intervals. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it sure beats the alternative! After the last session I saw the oncologist. I wanted to know my chances of ever conceiving again with only one ovary left. ‘Hmm… try for six months and if nothing happens, we’ll talk about it…’. I tried, for one month, and got pregnant!! All went well through this pregnancy, thank goodness, and the hospital monitored me very carefully throughout.
A year after my second baby was born, I had a hysterectomy and my other ovary removed.
It’s now nearly ten years on and here I am, alive and kicking and wanting to tell you all about those symptoms. I wasn’t taken seriously initially because I was ‘too young’ for ovarian cancer at the age of 38, I was an old first time mother and because doctors don’t always know the signs themselves… and here comes the important work of Target Ovarian Cancer.
Only three per cent of women in the UK feel very confident about naming an symptom, so please take a look at how to recognise the symptoms of ovarian cancer. They are:
• Increased abdominal size/persistent bloating – not bloating that comes and goes
• Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
• Persistent pelvic or abdominal pain (that’s your tummy and below)
• Needing to wee more urgently or often than usual
Other symptoms can include unexpected weight loss, change in bowel habits, and extreme fatigue. So if you are concerned PLEASE speak to your doctor, show them this list of symptoms and insist that they check it out. Ovarian cancer is known as the ‘silent killer’ because women who have it can have their symptoms put down to IBS, stress, etc. I was lucky because I was pregnant so if I hadn’t have been then it may never have been detected and I really wouldn’t be here.
But thankfully I’m still here, alive and kicking, four ops, chemo and two kids later, to tell the tale, and to tell you about the symptoms and to ask you to please visit my Just Giving page to help me raise £50 for this amazing charity. And please share my story to tell 50 women these symptoms. ‘For every woman. For life.’
Or, if you want to donate and get yourself a little something as well, you can buy that have been made for the p-LUSH show which I am involved with, as all the profit from selling them (that’s £2 per pair of needles) will go to Target Ovarian Cancer.
By Rachel Vowles
Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month: http://ocam.org.uk
Target Ovarian Cancer: www.targetovariancancer.org.uk