by Emily Maybanks
March 2018 is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Ovarian cancer is the biggest gynaecological killer of British women, with UK survival rates amongst the worst in Europe. Ovarian cancer is hard to detect early on because the symptoms are similar to those of less serious conditions such as ovarian cysts and endometriosis. Symptoms of ovarian cancer include but are not limited to: feeling constantly bloated, loss of appetite, and abdominal, pelvic and lower back pain. Further symptoms include changes in bowel habits, persistent indigestion and constant exhaustion.
My story is an interesting one because I didn’t know I had ovarian cancer until a few months after an operation to remove what was believed to be a 28cm ovarian cyst. I started to get symptoms associated with ovarian cancer and ovarian cysts in late 2016; I was referred to the gynaecology team at Singleton Hospital in Swansea where I was informed that I had a cyst of around 15cm growing off my ovary. I was constantly bloated, I had an alarming loss of appetite, to the point where I couldn’t eat solid food without feeling horrendously nauseous, and I was in consistent pain, and had to suspend my studies from University for the year. At no point did my GP or gynaecologist suspect that I could have ovarian cancer, which is why there was a five month wait between diagnosis and having surgery. I was fortunate that after my surgery – which was a major laparoscopic operation – my symptoms lessened significantly and I was physically so much better. I was diagnosed with post-operation depression (another story in itself) following surgery. In July 2017, I was called back into the hospital to see a gynaecologist and a Macmillan nurse where I was informed that the cyst was in fact a tumour. I now have regular tests and further appointments, and am living with the fact that the cancer could return at any point which is difficult to comprehend sometimes and it certainly doesn’t help my existing mental health conditions.
On the other hand, since having my operation and my diagnosis, I’ve become a lot more determined to make the most of every single opportunity thrown my way. When faced with an illness like ovarian cancer it makes you realise in life, things happen that challenge and test us intensely and you can either stand up and face it head on, or you can give up, and I chose the first option. Throughout my cancer journey, there have been times when giving up has felt like the best or at least the easiest and sometimes the only option. Life is for living and having had cancer has highlighted this for me.
I firmly believe that it is vital to raise awareness of ovarian cancer, especially for younger women, where an early diagnosis of ovarian cancer is often missed due to the similarity of symptoms with other less serious conditions. One of the best ways to raise awareness of anything is by being brave enough to share personal stories and experiences, if only to prove that there are cases where the cancer is treatable. It is important to see your GP if you suspect that you have any symptoms of ovarian cancer, as all it takes is a simple blood test to begin with to detect the cancer. I have been both fortunate and unfortunate with my experiences of ovarian cancer.
More information about ovarian cancer, including symptoms and where to get advice and support can be found on the Macmillan Cancer Support and the NHS websites. Furthermore, the ASC, the Disability Office and the Wellbeing services at University can provide advice on coping with academic work alongside dealing with long-term illnesses.