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Ovarian cancer: Women who have been diagnosed on why it's crucial to know the warning signs

As Target Ovarian Cancer urges women to know the symptoms of the disease during its awareness month, Belfast grandmother Ann Adair says her persistence in getting a diagnosis saved her life while Alison McMinn, from Carrickfergus, has had to battle the cancer twice, reports Stephanie Bell.

Women in Northern Ireland are being advised to learn the symptoms of ovarian cancer as the spotlight is put on the disease during the month of March.

The national charity Target Ovarian Cancer is driving a major public awareness campaign to highlight symptoms to mark Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.

Research conducted by the charity shows there is an alarmingly low awareness of symptoms, especially among women over 50 who are most at risk.

Over 7,000 women a year in the UK are diagnosed with ovarian cancer which is the biggest killer of all the gynaecological cancers, with 4,100 deaths each year.

The latest findings by the charity shows that just one in five women over the age of 50 can name only one of the key symptoms of ovarian cancer - bloating.

A similar proportion can name a second symptom, stomach pain, and even fewer can name the final key symptoms which include always feeling full (3%) and needing to go to the toilet more often (2%).

Now, Target Ovarian Cancer is calling on people across the UK to start making noise and help save lives by raising awareness of the symptoms of ovarian cancer.

The charity says early diagnosis is crucial - and the more women who know the symptoms, the more likely they are to visit their GP sooner, increasing their chances of being diagnosed at the earliest stage.

Annwen Jones, chief executive of Target Ovarian Cancer, said: "Everyone can do their part this Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month to raise awareness of the symptoms of ovarian cancer. Join us, start making noise and we will reach a point where every woman is diagnosed at the earliest stage, when the disease is easier to treat and survival rates are highest."

Two local women, who were not aware of the symptoms and were shocked to discover that they had ovarian cancer, tell us their stories.

‘I thought my big stomach was due to over-eating on holidays’

Alison McMinn (56), from Carrickfergus who is married to John, (56) a Translink manager, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2010. She was given the all clear after surgery only for the disease to return two years later. She says:

I had been to Dubai for my 50th birthday and when I came home I had a routine appointment with my GP and mentioned to her that I was very bloated. My stomach was really swollen and I thought it was weight I had put on with all the food I had eaten on holiday.

My GP examined my stomach and said she felt something and told me to go directly to A&E. That was a bit of a shock and I remember thinking after all these years if I could I finally be pregnant at 50?

I had a scan at the Mater in Belfast and was told I had what appeared to be a large growth on my ovary which may be a cyst or something more serious. I went back a week later for blood tests and a CT scan and that's when they told me I had ovarian cancer. The tumour was the size of a melon.

I was totally devastated; I just couldn't get my head round it, as cancer was the last thing on my mind.

I had no pain and the only symptom was that I was bloated.

Six weeks later I had surgery and my ovaries, appendix and womb as well as some lymph nodes were removed. I didn't need chemo as the doctors had managed to remove it all.

However, six months later during a check up they discovered it was back again. That time was worse than the first as I believed with my ovaries gone the cancer wouldn't come back. That was in May 2012 and surgery was scheduled for July which seemed like a long time to wait.

A week before the operation I was sitting at home and felt very warm down below and then saw that I was covered in blood. The tumour had ruptured.

The size of the tumour meant further surgery was too dangerous so I began a course of chemo to shrink it.

The chemo worked but I had to have major surgery which lasted 10 hours to remove my bladder, part of my bowel and part of my vagina.

When I woke up in intensive care I had bladder and bowel bags. Fortunately, I was able to get the bowel bag reversed a few months later.

Every three to four months I have to have blood tests then a specialist will call me with the results. I will be due my latest call next week.

You just have to get on with it, but you can't help being nervous when you have the tests and know the results are due.

Target Ovarian Cancer held a day for women in Belfast last year, and as a result of it, a group of us has got together to support each other. Most of the women are going through what I've been through - but I am out the other end and they look to me because of it.

It is sad as some of the girls are battling it right now, but all of them have great spirits. I know that it is most common in women over 50 but most of the girls in our group are in their 30s and 40s so it can happen to anyone.

I wasn't aware of the symptoms and now looking back, yes I had most of them. I would encourage any woman who is experiencing something that is not normal for them, to go to the doctor.

It might be nothing - but it's best to get checked out. Spreading the word this March, so that more people know the symptoms of ovarian cancer, will save lives."

‘You worry it will always come back’

Ann Adair (57), a retired medical secretary from Belfast, has been living with ovarian cancer since she was diagnosed with an advanced form of the disease in 2012. Ann, who is married to Stuart (58) and has two daughters and four grandchildren, has campaigned for and given talks on ovarian cancer as well as raising thousands for cancer charities. She says:

I felt unwell after Christmas 2012 but I didn’t know why. I’ve always suffered period pains and thought that’s what was wrong. But when I got up on the morning of February 6 I felt absolutely awful and had excruciating pains in my legs.

I got into the car to go to work but realised I wasn’t well enough. I went to my GP who examined me and sent me directly to A&E at the hospital where I was referred to the gynaecology department.

At that time I was sent home. They did a swab at the hospital, and I waited for the results but when they came through I was told I had thrush and was given a prescription for that.

When I wasn’t getting any better, I went back to my GP at the end of February and she felt my tummy and thought I could have irritable bowel syndrome and referred me to the Ulster Hospital to see a consultant. I was told it could be August before I saw a consultant, and in the meantime I was living on painkillers. Then, on May 9, I bent over in the office to pick something up and a pain shot through my body so severely that it reduced me to tears.

The consultant I worked for and another consultant saw that I was in agony and were shocked. They asked me to tell them everything.

They arranged for me to see a consultant that night at the Ulster Independent Clinic who did a scan and told me I had a cyst on my right ovary the size of a grapefruit.

He arranged for blood tests that night and another scan the following week, adding that I would need surgery in the next couple of weeks.

I suspected cancer at that stage and it was very frightening.

My husband was very positive and that kept me going.

When cancer was confirmed, the specialists told me it was advanced, but they could treat it.

It has been a real roller coaster. During surgery, where I had a full abdominal hysterectomy, a tumour was discovered on my left ovary as well.

I underwent chemotherapy from July 2013 until a week before Christmas which hit me very hard.

After the chemo, a scan showed that the cancer had gone, but eight months later my bloods were up again and in August 2014 another scan showed it had come back.

I was shocked at how quickly this happened.

However, the doctors decided because the cancerous growth was so small at that stage and I’d had such a rough ride with chemo, the best thing to do was to watch and wait. Since then I’ve been having scans every three months and blood tests.

In January 2016, I took a heaviness in my stomach once again and also pains in my back — and, yes, the cancer had returned yet again.

I had to have more chemo which lasted until August of last year.

At the moment my bloods are up again and I’m waiting to have a scan and I just hope I’m not told that I need more treatment.

I would really love to get about 18 months again before any treatment as I’ve a lot of things planned this year which I hope to do.

I’m living with cancer and I know it could come back at any time — but now four years on, I have perhaps got a bit complacent and I just think this is my life now and I have to live it.

Of course you worry that every niggle or pain is the cancer back again, and often it isn’t — but none of us have the promise of tomorrow and life is for the living.

It’s not a disease which just affects post-menopausal women but younger women, too — and can even happen to children which shocked me.

I didn’t know the symptoms but looking back, I realise that I had most of them. I couldn’t finish a sandwich because I felt full, I had very low abdominal pain, low back pain and breathlessness.

I would urge any woman who has symptoms to go to their doctor. Please don’t be afraid to say you think you may have the symptoms of ovarian cancer.

I owe my life to the two consultants who helped me and the specialist at the Ulster Clinic.

I think I might well be dead if they had not intervened and I had to wait on my referral appointment which would have been months later.”

Symptoms of ovarian cancer

  • Symptoms of ovarian cancer are frequent (they usually happen more than 12 times a month) and are persistent, They include:
  • Increased abdominal size/persistent bloating
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Needing to urinate more urgently or more often
  • Other symptoms can include unexpected weight loss, change in bowel habits, and extreme fatigue
  • If you regularly experience any of these symptoms, which are not normal for you, it is important that you see your GP. It is unlikely that your symptoms are caused by a serious problem, but it is important to be checked out

Target Ovarian Cancer is the UK’s leading ovarian cancer charity working to improve early diagnosis, fund life-saving research and provide much-needed support to women with ovarian cancer. Visit targetovariancancer.org.uk

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