Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 24 September 2014

It's time to break the deadly silence

A top Ulster doctor has lent his support to a charity set up by a Portadown woman, following the death of her daughter from ovarian cancer, in October 2002.

A top Ulster doctor has lent his support to a charity set up by a Portadown woman, following the death of her daughter from ovarian cancer, in October 2002.

Dr Stephen Dobbs treated 27-year-old Julie Clarke during her courageous, but unsuccessful, seven-month battle with the disease.

He was so moved by her spirit and determination that he now works closely with her mum Maureen, who has set up Julie Clarke's Angel's of Hope charity.

Maureen set up the charity - the first of its kind in Ireland - to dispel what she regards as the myth that ovarian cancer is 'the silent killer'.

"Doctors say it is the silent killer, but it's not - you just have to know what you are looking for," explained Maureen.

"Julie had been having problems for about 18 months before she was diagnosed, and it was put down to Irritable Bowel Syndrome, but if I had of known then, then what I know now, I would have insisted that she underwent a pelvic scan."

Maureen claims that women, and the medical profession in general, need to be more alert to ovarian cancer.

"Julie thought she was putting weight on around her tummy, so she went to the gym, and she attributed the sore tummy that followed to overdoing it," the still-grieving mum told Sunday Life.

"The next morning she left for work, but she was back within 15 minutes in agony.

"She spent all day in bed, and wouldn't go to the doctor because she thought it was the IBS, but I knew something wasn't right, and got her to see a GP that eveningwho sent her to A&E.

"Doctors there told her it was her bowel, but tests came back clear."

The pain was so bad that Julie was on morphine.

"The doctors then did a pelvic scan and discovered what they thought was an ovarian cyst."

That night, surgeons operated on Julie, and she was home and getting on with her life within three days.

However, two weeks later, the young woman was contacted by her GP, who asked to see her "as a matter of urgency".

"They had done a biopsy and discovered it was cancer.

"As soon as we heard the word 'urgent', we both knew it was bad," said Maureen.

Despite the news, the prognosis was good - Julie was given an 80pc chance of survival, and embarked upon a combination of chemotherapy and surgery with the attitude that she would beat the cancer.

So sure was she that she would survive her illness that she booked a holiday later in the year.

"Julie was absolutely amazing during her treatment - when she had her hysterectomy, she joked that she was getting liposuction on the NHS," said Maureen.

"She was really sick during her treatment, but she didn't spend one day in bed - she was a real tough cookie.

"I found it really difficult to get information when Julie was ill - because she was an adult, the doctors couldn't speak to me without her permission even though I was her carer.

"There were support groups in England, but what use was that to me in Portadown?," asked Maureen.

After Julie's treatment finished, doctors told her to get on with her life but within one week, she returned to hospital in agonising pain - the cancer had returned and spread to her bowel.

Julie died seven weeks later.

"I know [setting up the charity] is what she would have wanted - I hope that what she went through can make a difference.

"People need to be better informed, so we have produced, with Stephen Dobbs' help, 16,000 leaflets about ovarian cancer and distributed them to GP surgeries, A&E departments - anywhere that will have them really.

"I like to think that a woman will pick one of them up, and realise she has the symptoms of ovarian cancer, and go for the scan that saves her life - women also need to know that a smear doesn't detect ovarian cancer.

"In time, we are hoping the organisation will grow and we will be able to provide support groups. In April, we are launching a website.

"Of course, this all costs money so we are appealing for people to help in upcoming fundraising events, such as the Dublin marathon, at the end of October, and the New York marathon, in November.

"Losing Julie was awful - I just can't describe it - but you have to keep going and her strength has given me the strength to go on."

› Julie Clarke's Angel's of Hope can be contacted on: 028 3833 9903 or email jcaoh@hotmail.com

No detection through a smear

Dr Stephen Dobbs, consultant gynaecologist and gynaecological oncologist, at Belfast City Hospital, treats many women diagnosed with ovarian cancer, in the province, each year.

Alongside Maureen Clarke, he is working to dispel some of the mysteries surrounding the disease.

"Perhaps the most important thing to note," says Dr Dobbs, is that ovarian cancer cannot be detected by a smear.

"Diagnosis begins with a visit to your GP, who will feel to see if the womb and ovaries are normal. If any part of the reproductive system is abnormal, the patient will be referred for further tests, such as an ultrasound, blood tests and a CT scan.

"If ovarian cancer is caught early enough, it is curable. However, the main problem is that many of the symptoms are more likely to be caused by ailments, such as irritable bowel syndrome.

"If a woman is experiencing a constantly swollen abdomen, changes in bowel or bladder that are constant and progressive, an onset of indigestion or nausea, on-going excessive fatigue or unexplained back or stomach pain, they should visit their GP, so that ovarian cancer can be ruled out.

"If the disease is diagnosed, most women will initially undergo surgery to remove any tumours and to confirm diagnosis.

"The majority then undergo chemotherapy, while some undergo radiotherapy, used for more advanced cancers,"

Dr Dobbs is working with colleagues on clinical trials to produce a screening test for ovarian cancer.

He told Sunday Life: "More vital research is needed to develop early detection methods, but in the meantime, it is important that people are better informed, so that we can reduce the number of women who die each year from this horrific disease."

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