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29th July 2015

A 40th birthday blessing: one woman’s ovarian cancer story

For many women, the months leading up to your 40th birthday can bring on typical mid-life crisis anxieties: you’ve already peaked, you’re starting to look a bit frumpy, your bikini days are over. Karen also belonged to this tribe of worriers until she discovered that her growing waistline was due to ovarian cancer, not middle age.

“My clothes were getting tight at the waistline, I was experiencing discomfort and indigestion after eating, and was falling asleep on the train ride home from work in the evenings,” she says. She just chalked it up to getting older until she had a ‘lightbulb’ moment while dancing on the beach with her daughter. “My belly felt like a water balloon as I swayed to the music – unevenly weighted and shifting as I did,” she says, recalling the day she realised something was wrong.

Karen was lucky that she decided to see the gynaecologist, who did a physical exam and ordered some blood tests. Within days, the results came back showing abnormally high levels of CA125, a protein that doctors sometimes look at when checking for female health issues including ovarian cancer. The next step was an ultrasound scan, which allowed the doctor to visually confirm that there was a tumour in Karen’s abdomen.

A week later, she was having surgery to remove the tumour ‒ as well as 4.5 litres of fluid that had built up and caused the ‘water balloon’ feeling in Karen’s belly. After that, she managed to squeeze in six rounds of chemotherapy as well as a second surgery combined with a hysterectomy and removal of her ovaries ‒ all before her 40th birthday. “Suddenly, 40 years felt like such a blessing! I am now marking the 5th anniversary of that [initial] diagnosis, with no evidence of recurrence,” says Karen.

Know the facts and symptoms

Like Karen, nearly a quarter of a million women around the world are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year. It has the lowest survival rate of all female cancers, so Karen was fortunate to beat the odds by taking quick action and getting diagnosed early.

Though any woman can develop ovarian cancer, the risk is higher for some. For example, if you have family history of the disease, are a known carrier of mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes (like Angelina Jolie) or started your period at an early age, there’s a higher risk. That’s not to say you’re doomed; just a friendly (OK, maybe a little bit pushy) nudge to be aware of the symptoms, which include persistent bloating, difficulty eating, abdominal or pelvic pain and the need to urinate more urgently/frequently than normal.

Because the symptoms can be confused with those of other less serious illnesses, particularly gastrointestinal complaints, they are often misdiagnosed. Moreover, many women mistakenly believe the cervical smear test (pap test) will detect ovarian cancer. For these and other reasons, ovarian cancer is often diagnosed at a late stage.

However, if you know the symptoms and get diagnosed early, you can significantly improve your chance of survival and, like Karen, see it as an opportunity to celebrate life.

Good news for early detection

In the UK, the National Health Service currently only offers ovarian cancer screening for women who are at high risk of developing the condition. However, there’s a new screening technique that may pick up twice as many ovarian cancer cases as conventional testing methods, according to the initial results of an ongoing study. Doctors and researchers involved in the study say the screening gives a more accurate prediction of a woman’s individual risk of developing cancer, and could hopefully go on to form the basis of a national screening programme for ovarian cancer. It’s hoped that the new approach will be capable of detecting ovarian cancer at an earlier stage and save lives.