The 29th of May 2020 was the worst day of my life. The words pierced through me and shattered my whole world. “I’m so sorry but I think you have ovarian cancer” the obstetrician said.
A few days before, I had been to my GP. We were in lockdown, and I had been doing schoolwork at home with the kids while suddenly I was finding it hard to eat. For about 6 months, I found myself completely exhausted and experienced many vague ‘women’s issues’, but I thought that was just life as a mother of 3 young kids.
My GP sent me for an ultrasound and then an MRI, which confirmed a very large mass in my pelvis and abdomen. My mind ran all over the place. My surgeon knew how worried I was and did not choose to share exactly how far he thought it had spread (really far). He decided to tell me he was confident he could get it out and that he had “some mates” that could help him. It turns out when you stumble across one brilliant surgeon, all of their friends are brilliant surgeons too.
He asked my permission to take whatever was needed and decided to Shield me from all the worrying stuff (like telling me what was actually there) so I could concentrate on fighting. It wasn’t until most of it was out of my body and I met my medical oncologist that I found out I had stage 4 cancer. My tumour weighed approximately 3 kilos when it was found. Lots of people have asked me how on earth I had a 3 kilo blob inside me without noticing. It didn’t reach that stage overnight and had been growing slowly over approximately 2 years before it started to interfere with my life.
Ovarian cancer is a very difficult cancer for women to detect because we often mistake it for the usual niggling uterus and ovarian pains, assuming it is normal and minor. As the pain became more acute and started interfering with my eating, bowel, and bladder movement, I realised it wasn’t normal and I started to lose large amounts of weight and look anemic. These symptoms came suddenly over a couple of weeks but had previously felt no worse than regular period pain.
As a result, my surgeon organised a colonoscopy and endoscopy before my big surgery. They found my tumour had made its way into my bowel, and were able to determine how aggressive it was, how to treat it and whether there may be a genetic explanation for why it had invaded my body.
I felt lucky that it had spread in a way because it gave the doctors a head start before they operated. The biopsy shocked us all by showing it was a slow-growing, low-grade cancer that had been growing for two years! They told me it was very uncommon for a young woman of 35 to get this kind of cancer after having three healthy pregnancies.
It was scary knowing for sure it was ovarian cancer. Before being diagnosed, I knew nothing about ovarian cancer. I had some thoughts about it being something older women suffered from, but not women in their 30s.
They took out my ovaries, uterus, cervix, 50cm of bowel, part of my liver, my omentum and my spleen. They rebuilt the tube between my bladder and kidney, which had been strangled. They carefully peeled away the tumour and scraped cancer off my diaphragm and stomach and removed 26 lymph nodes, 12 of which showed malignancy.
No one had imaged how complicated the operation would become. Five consultants came together from different specialties and spent nine hours removing my very unwanted, uninvited guest. The surgery I had was radical and dangerous, and I stayed intubated and sedated until the next day. I stayed in ICU for six days and in the hospital a total of 22 days with a dangerous post-operative infection in my bladder.
Very few women will have access to a team of surgeons willing to operate all together and to the extent needed to remove my tumour. I know that I am one of the fortunate ones living in a nation with leading universal health care and brilliant private medical insurance. There was so little cancer remaining at the end of that surgery that even chemoresistant cancer like mine was down to microscopic cells after only one treatment.
I recently finished my six cycles of chemo and ‘observed’ my six months post-surgery day. I can’t believe how far I have come in such a short time. I remember the terrible fear that I wouldn’t wake up when I said goodbye to the kids. I can remember the horrifying conversation the anaesthetist had about what he would have to to keep me alive. He was a trauma specialist who specialised in combat medicine. He had been in war zones, and he looked worried when we spoke, he looked like he had a lot on his shoulders and he said it was a huge job.
I used to wonder “who am I to think I could be one of the lucky few who survive this.” I am now starting to realise I have had everything in the arsenal thrown at this cancer and it looks like it has worked. My PET report said the words I have been waiting to hear since the very first day I found out I had ovarian cancer… “No visible sign of tumour.”
Now I need to learn to LIVE again in my new normal. I’m going to my rehab physio sessions and loving it, I’m feeling strong and I’m feeling like me again. I’m about to send my youngest baby to big school and after some counselling, I’m hoping to get back to work in the near future. Life is good.