Heather Hawkins, Cartherics Board Advisor and patient advocate, shares her personal journey with ovarian cancer in the hope that it will help raise awareness of the importance of early diagnosis.
My ovarian cancer journey began in December 2006.
At the time I was a 41-year-old busy working mother of two, running a film and video production company with my husband. Prior to that I’d been a nurse.
I was generally healthy, eating well – but far from fit, doing very little exercise.
I started to notice the following signs and symptoms:
Abdominal bloating/swelling: The waistband of my favourite red skirt felt tight and I was puzzled as to why it didn’t fit one day to the next. I cried as I hung it back up in the wardrobe.
I was off to the bathroom more times than not with urinary frequency, racing to get there and feeling very embarrassed.
I was exceptionally tired and far more emotional than usual but put this down to the summer humidity and simply being a busy mum.
I had a couple of very heavy periods with severe abdominal cramping and bloating. Maybe this was this menopause? I was unsure.
But as the signs and symptoms persisted, and actually increased, intuition kicked in, I knew there must be something wrong. It was late February 2007
So I dusted off my nursing skills and did an external examination of my abdomen. When I pressed in on my lower right side – it was firm. It felt different. It was uncomfortable to touch. I remember clearly that terrible wash of anxiety that spread through my body at that time.
The next day I made an appointment to see our family GP and my husband Doug came with me.
My GP examined my abdomen and immediately arranged for me to have a CT scan and chest X-ray and that afternoon we found ourselves back at his rooms to receive the results.
He broke the news to us: ’Heather, dear, I’m so sorry to tell you this – it appears you have a large, 10 cm complex tumour on your right ovary.’
His words hung up in the air. I was in shock. Numb. We sat in silence.
Then all my questions came tumbling out.
‘What’s my prognosis? Is it benign? Is it cancerous? Has it spread? I guess this will mean surgery? Will I need chemotherapy? Will I even survive this?’ Maybe my life is over … finished … gone at forty-two.
All of a sudden, our familiar, ordered world had shifted…
Together with my doctor, we put a practical plan in place, which provided a much needed anchor in among all the emotion and uncertainty.
Things moved quickly and I’m incredibly grateful for this.
I had bloods taken for the ovarian cancer tumour marker CA125 then
three days later I saw a gynaecological surgeon. Surgery was scheduled for Thursday the next week – 7th March 2007.
I couldn’t wait to get this stage over and done with. To have the tumour removed, and I was desperately hoping that it wouldn’t spread any further before then. I pulled myself up from thinking too much about the cancer inside and becoming paralysed with fear. It was now a matter of keeping it together for the next six days, staying as calm and as positive as I could. Getting as much work done at the office and focusing on doing normal family things.
Two days prior to surgery I had an ultrasound to get more detailed measurements of the tumour, and general bloods in preparation for surgery. The tumour had grown. It was pushing my uterus across to the left side of my abdomen. I actually looked like I was six months pregnant.
On the morning of surgery, as I laid on my hospital trolley with my arms by my side, the roundness of my abdomen was so evident under my gown. On the inside I was experiencing a vigorous tug of war between immense relief that the day was finally here, but apprehension about how the surgery would go and more importantly, what it would reveal. Everything revolved around that. My world. My life. My future. Would my days from here be counted in weeks instead of years?
My surgeon appeared beside me and took a hold of my hand to tell me something important. ‘Heather,’ he said earnestly, ‘you’ve walked into a storm, but I’ll be with you and I’ll bring you all the way through.’ His words were profoundly reassuring.
It was a big operation. My surgeon made a large abdominal incision from my belly button down. The tumour was situated within a cyst on my right ovary. It was 18 centimetres in diameter and weighed an alarming 1.25 kilograms and confirmed what the scans had indicated – a fast-growing immature teratoma with several scattered areas of cancer within its tissues.
He skillfully removed the mass without rupturing the cyst walls, then performed a total hysterectomy, took out my ovaries and fallopian tubes and removed a large section of the fatty omentum from the front of my abdominal cavity. A sample of peritoneal fluid was taken and the wound closed.
My surgeon had taken away so much, but in return, he’d given me back so much – my life!
In the recovery ward I heard the nurse calling my name and I opened my eyes – the operation was over; the tumour was gone. I was alive! But I was also in a lot of pain. I tried my best to keep it all together, but I didn’t… I was so incredibly grateful for the pain relief and the reassurance provided by the nurse – it helped me get through.
Pathology results revealed that my ovarian cancer was stage one. I have never, ever cried with so much relief before….
I healed well and within three weeks, I was back working part time and doing my best to be a normal mum. My family were so supportive and my friends dropped in with meals, flowers and to have cups of tea.
The next step along the journey was that I was referred to see a gynaecological oncologist.
I remember clearly walking into his waiting room. It was filled with women. Some with hair, some without. Some with months to live, others without. They were all ages, degrees of illness and prognosis. It affected me deeply. I was living in a parallel universe where the words ‘survival’ and ‘long life’ were a rare commodity.
My Oncologist examined me and we talked about options. Yes. Options! It just so happened he was aware of a relatively new surveillance program for my particular type of cancer, immature terratoma, and for the stage that I was at – stage 1. What it involved were frequent physical examinations, CT scans and ultrasounds and blood tests. Starting with every two weeks then extending to 4 weeks, 3 months, 6 months, etc. extending over a period of five years. Always with the back-up plan, that if any of the tests reveal that the cancer had returned, then chemotherapy would be commenced straight away. This seemed to be a great way forward and what helped me make this decision was that the cure rate from this back up plan was known to be very high.
So 16 years later here I am. The cancer has not returned…
Life is very, very different now.
I’m living life with renewed purpose and immense gratitude : helping to raise awareness and funds for ovarian cancer. Giving back where I can.
And this whole experience has enabled me to be a little more courageous and reconnected me with my adventurous spirit. So after all these years I have finally become fit! I now run ultra marathons in extreme locations like the North Pole, Antarctica and the Sahara desert, trekked across Nepal and I’ve written a book about my journey…
I’m so glad that I acted on the signs and symptoms and so grateful for the medical and nursing care that I received. The skill, the kind words, the personal connection – this has left a lasting imprint on myself and on my family, and made my journey facing a frightening diagnosis into a far more positive, life changing one…