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Carol Bareham discovered she'd ovarian cancer at 42, now she's using body art to warn other women about the disease

Published 08/11/2016

Pauline Kennedy and daughter Caroline
Pauline Kennedy and daughter Caroline
Alison McMinn and Carol at the tattoo parlour
Carol with her son Elliot
Team work: from left, Ruth McCarroll, Pauline Kennedy, Alison McMinn and Carol

Ovarian cancer survivor Carol Bareham, from Larne, says she owes her life to a locum doctor who caught the disease in time. Now she tells Una Brankin why women need to be aware of symptoms of this potential killer.

A new tattoo was a treat Carol Bareham had promised herself this time last year, something to look forward to at the end of six rounds of gruelling chemotherapy and surgery.

Her treatment behind her, the Larne lab technician is now sporting the latest addition to her body art, in the form of a teal-coloured ribbon - the logo of charity Target Ovarian Cancer - to help promote awareness of this form of cancer which is one of the so-called silent killers in the list of serious illnesses.

Carol's diagnosis came as a huge shock to her and her husband Neil (52), who works for a quarry-based chemical company, and their two children, Thea (14) and Elliot (12).

"I used to smoke about 10 cigarettes a day but I was healthy - we've two dogs and I walked them daily and I was on my feet a lot of the time at work," says the 42-year-old.

"I also did a bit of keep fit at home, so the diagnosis was a shock. I was told that the main risk factors for ovarian cancer are the BRCA gene, which I don't have, and age, so I don't know why I got it.

"The only thing I could think of is the fact I used to worked as a radiographer in England, but the consultant said any connection with that would be a long shot.

"My father died of lung cancer and my maternal grandmother had cervical cancer, but mine's not genetic. My mother is one of four girls and none of them has had cancer."

Carol began to feel unwell on holiday in Egypt last year. She assumed she had probably contracted a stomach bug, but when her appetite still hadn't recovered a few weeks after returning home, she made several appointments with different doctors before receiving an abdominal examination.

"Thinking back, my stomach blew up overnight and I had these pains," she recalls. "Like me, the doctors thought it was a tummy bug at the start but then I went back again and was lucky to get another GP, who was seconded there for a year, and he checked me out and found a lump.

"He took a blood sample and it showed that the protein level was abnormally high, so he sent me for an ultra-sound scan. The whole time I was thinking 'is it or isn't it?' But I put it to the back of my mind until I had the scan."

The ultra-sound showed up a mass on Carol's left ovary, so she was sent for a CT scan.

"I remember asking the nurse did she see anything but she said she could only look and see shapes, and it was up to the consultant to diagnose," Carol explains.

The CT scan revealed large cysts on both Carol's ovaries. Her husband offered to go with her to get the results from her GP but she insisted she'd be fine to go on her own - never thinking the tests would reveal cancer.

"I went back to the doctor's surgery and was sent in to my usual GP, although I've been on his books for four years and never met him because I hadn't needed to come in," she recalls.

"He put it as kindly as possible - his own dad had cancer - and told me I was on a journey.

"We didn't talk about what stage it was at then, but he explained that with breast cancer, for instance, the secondaries go to the brain or the bones. Mine had travelled to my liver; but was sitting on it, rather than in it.

"The swelling was from the fluid that had built up in my abdomen.

"There were tears shed," she says. "I got into the car and all I could think of was having to get home and how I was going tell my husband and the kids.

"I cried for a minute then got hold of myself to drive home. We're only two minutes drive away."

Carol had been warned by her GP not to Google ovarian cancer. She did as she was told but her family went straight onto the internet.

"The statistics are shocking. I'm sure they were frightened but they kept it from me. And then I had to tell my mum," she says.

"She lost dad and her own mum to cancer and now I was saying her daughter had it, too. She coped quite well - I set the precedent by staying positive. My attitude was, 'at least I can be treated - let's get on with it'."

Carol was then referred for a biopsy at Antrim Hospital on September 7, 2015.

"Some dates never leave you," she says. "I had to wait two weeks for the result. It was stage three C - they are fast growing cells but they can be treated. Lower grade cells don't look much different to normal cells, so they are harder to treat.

"I had my first chemotherapy session on October 13. I really needed it. I was fading away very fast. My bowels were very bad with the chemo and I lost weight but I felt better after it. I lost more weight with the second session, but again, I felt better after it, and that gave me hope."

At the beginning of her chemotherapy, Carol kept her promise to give up smoking.

"I couldn't have got out of the bed to smoke anyway," she remembers.

"I took time off work - some people can work through the treatment but I just wasn't in the physical shape for it. I had my good days and my bad days. Mum babysat me through it and made lunch.

"I hate daytime TV - it's a horror for me - but I sat with her, wrapped up in a blanket, and watched Jeremy Kyle and so on.

"The rest of the time I spent mostly on Facebook and my workmates very kindly bought me a Kindle Fire tablet and the games on it kept me amused.

"But I was fit for nothing, which was hard, as I'd always been so independent. I was able to get out and about for Christmas shopping though, and that showed the chemo was working. I took the hits and recovered, and it went past fairly quickly."

During chemotherapy, Carol lost her all her body hair: "I looked like an alien. I'd recommend the Looking and Feeling Better courses that are available to patients. You get good tips and tricks, like how to draw on your eyebrows and do your make-up to disguise that horrible colour you get; the cancer look. It's a nice treat and your hair does grow back."

After four rounds of chemo, Carol underwent a complete hysterectomy, which removed her uterus, cervix and fallopian tubes, along with her ovaries.

"It was a very big operation to go through but I'll never forget the consultant coming into the room and saying 'We got it all'.

"There were more tears then, but of joy, that time. And the GP who first gave me an abdominal exam gets a hug too, every time I see him."

Since the successful surgery, Carol has blood tests every four months. From a peak of over 3000 in her protein levels late last year - an indicator for cancer - she has now has a normal level of 12.

"You're climbing the walls waiting on the results to see if you have another four months living and breathing," she admits.

"It's a real rollercoaster. I'm not the same person I was, mentally or physically. I'm not as strong but I could easily have fallen into depression, and I didn't.

"I don't think in terms of having 'beaten it'. I've taken the treatment given to me and I'm lucky it is working."

Carol remains indebted to the temporary GP who gave her the abdominal examination which led to her diagnosis.

She cites the late campaigner Una Crudden (right), from west Belfast, who called for a simple blood test for any women presenting with the symptoms of ovarian cancer, rather than attributing them to irritable bowel syndrome - a common misdiagnosis made in women with ovarian cancer.

"The problem, as Una Crudden highlighted, is that GPs tend to look for the least serious possibility first," she says.

"There are so many cases of ovarian cancer coming in to them in their working lifetime so they look for the easiest option, not the big bad one first.

"I did not know the symptoms of ovarian cancer before Una Crudden was diagnosed and I want to help make women aware of the symptoms and to warn them that a smear test cannot diagnose ovarian cancer. A smear is just a test for cancerous cells in the cervix."

At the tattoo parlour in Larne on Saturday, Carol was joined by some friends who agreed to go under the needle in support of her awareness raising campaign.

She adds:"It's a bit of fun but I hopes it help spread the message. The whole experience has been traumatic and I lost a lot of weight through it, but it has all come back on again and I feel good.

"I was very lucky - now I want to raise as much awareness of this disease I can and raise money for research."

  • For more information visit Target Ovarian Cancer at target ovarian cancer.org.uk

Warning signs to look out for ...

Symptoms

The symptoms of ovarian cancer are frequent — they usually happen more than 12 times a month — and persistent. They include:

  • increased abdominal size/persistent bloating
  • difficulty eating/feeling full quickly
  • pelvic or abdominal pain
  • needing to wee more urgently or more often
  • Other symptoms can include unexpected weight loss, change in bowel habits, and extreme fatigue

Ovarian cancer figures

  • On average, 188 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer in Northern Ireland each year
  • Every year 122 women here lose their lives to ovarian cancer. (Average figures from Queen’s University Belfast cancer registry)
  • Visit qub.ac.uk/research-centres/nicr/CancerInformation/official-statistics/BySite/Ovary/ for more details

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