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By the time a Belfast grandmother's ovarian cancer was diagnosed, it was too late to hope for a cure. Now, she wants to save others from similar fate

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Fighting back: grandmother Ann Adair

Fighting back: grandmother Ann Adair

Ann Adair with daughter Emma

Ann Adair with daughter Emma

Una Crudden

Una Crudden

Creative patch: Ann enjoys her art therapy

Creative patch: Ann enjoys her art therapy

Ann, daughters Emma Dale and Sarah Bass and husband Stuart

Ann, daughters Emma Dale and Sarah Bass and husband Stuart

Fighting back: grandmother Ann Adair

Belfast grandmother Ann Adair was shattered to hear in 2013 that she has advanced ovarian cancer and she now wants to help other women by urging them to go to their GP if they've any niggling worries about their health - no matter how small.

By telling her poignant story, Ann is also helping local charity Cancer Focus Northern Ireland highlight the disease during March, Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. "The earlier ovarian cancer is caught, the better the outcome," says Ann. "You know your own body more than anyone else, so anything at all that is not normal for you, speak to your GP.

"Don't be afraid to ask to be checked for ovarian cancer if you think you have any of the symptoms. It's a simple blood test and it's worth having it done for peace of mind."

Ann (55) is married to Stuart and they have two daughters, Sarah and Emma, and grandchildren Arthur (3) and Zack (2), with a third on the way. She has been through a battery of emotions since she and her family got the devastating news that she was not going to recover.

"I had been feeling tired for a while, but realised something wasn't quite right in January 2013. I felt my tummy had become bigger even though I didn't think I'd eaten that much over Christmas, but I decided to try and lose some weight," she recalls.

"About two weeks later, I started to get pains in my right side. I wasn't losing weight, my tummy still felt bloated and I was still in pain. Then I started getting pain in my lower abdomen as well."

Ann had a busy job at the time as a hospital medical secretary. She was a bit stressed and started to think she was imagining her symptoms and put her weight down to middle-age spread.

"On February 6, 2013, I was in so much pain I went to the GP, who sent me to A&E. Eventually, I saw a doctor who transferred me to the gynaecology department.

"I had a transvaginal ultrasound scan and was told there was nothing wrong and for the next three months my GP treated me for irritable bowel syndrome.

"Then, on May 9, I knocked something off my desk in work and bent over to pick it up. A pain shot through me that brought tears to my eyes. A nearby consultant - he worked in orthopaedics - talked to me and realised there was something more wrong.

"I really feel I owe my life to him as he quickly arranged for an appointment with a private consultant at the Ulster Independent Clinic that evening. At the clinic, a scan showed I had a cyst on my right ovary.

"The consultant said it was about the size of a large grapefruit and I needed an urgent hysterectomy, more tests in the form of blood tumour markers and an MRI scan."

Ann was admitted to the Belfast City Hospital on June 11 for the operation.

The next day the consultant broke the news that she had ovarian cancer and would need chemotherapy.

"I'd suspected from the first consultation that it might be cancer, so when my consultant confirmed my fears, it wasn't a big surprise.

"The real shock came when I met my oncologist for the first time. She explained that the cancer was advanced and they 'could not cure me, just manage it'.

"Until then I truly believed that I would be cured. I'd no idea until that point that ovarian cancer was known as the silent killer. It was devastating news for me and my family.

"My chemotherapy started on July 13, 2013, and finished a week before Christmas that year. It was tough going. I suffered from mouth ulcers and pains in my feet and legs with the treatment. My white blood cells took a bit of a battering with the chemo resulting in several delays in treatment. I lost all my hair and although I was given a wig I couldn't wear it as my surgery had thrown me into the menopause and it got very uncomfortable when I had a hot flush. I learned how to tie scarves, which were much more comfortable to wear.

"By January last year, the scans showed no sign of any visible disease, but I was warned that it would return because it was advanced and to be aware of any symptoms."

Last autumn, Ann had further tests including a CT scan and was devastated to learn that the cancer was back in three pelvic lymph nodes. Thankfully, the tumours were small and she didn't need to start chemo right away.

A later scan showed another lymph node was affected and there was a soft tissue tumour - all still small, so she continues to watch and wait.

It was while Ann was receiving chemo that she met and befriended inspirational ovarian cancer campaigner Una Crudden, who sadly passed away last year.

Ann helped her highlight ovarian cancer and has asked Belfast City Council to light up the City Hall sometime on March 25 to mark Una's birthday and ovarian cancer awareness month.

Ann has had a very tough time of it, but has had much valued support from Cancer Focus NI's counselling and art therapy services. "The counselling was very beneficial. It was just so good to be able to talk to someone wasn't connected on a personal level with me.

"I love going to art therapy - I wouldn't say I'm brilliant at art but I produced a nice picture that my mother-in-law has on her living room wall. It's a great group of people and we're all very supportive of each other.

"If we're worried about something we've no problem talking to one another, they understand more than most.

"It's good to be able to talk about your anxieties with each other - you're always worried about over-burdening your family and friends. I find it a very relaxing couple of hours in my week and always look forward to it."

Ann also loves visits from her daughters and grandsons, who help take her mind off her aches and pains and are great entertainment.

"It's heartbreaking to think I might not be around to see the children grow up, but I keep positive and keep my faith. I go to healing services in my own church which give me a great sense of peace.

"Una got five years after diagnosis, which is about the maximum. I've almost reached two years after mine.

"It's hard to think that I might have only three years left.

"My prognosis isn't great, but I'm feeling fine, and if you haven't got hope you have nothing."

Ann says she'll keep on raising awareness of ovarian cancer, and her wish is for women everywhere to be alert to the signs and symptoms of cancer.

"You don't need to have all the symptoms of ovarian cancer, but if you have any get checked no matter how trivial you feel your concerns are," she urges.

Deirdre Conlon, care services manager, Cancer Focus NI, says: "There were 175 cases of ovarian cancer diagnosed in Northern Ireland in 2012.

"Most cases, but not all, are diagnosed in women who have gone through the menopause.

"Some of the symptoms of ovarian cancer are similar to those seen in more common conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, so GPs may find it more difficult to diagnose.

"It's also important to remember that cervical screening tests, or smear tests, will not help to detect ovarian cancer.

"However, the earlier ovarian cancer is detected, the easier it is to treat and the better chance of survival, so we urge any woman who is worried to go to her GP as soon as possible.

"If you would like to talk confidentially to someone about your concerns, please call our free helpline on 0800 783 3339 and speak to one of our specialist nurses."

Spot the early signs ...

Be aware of signs and symptoms that are frequent, persistent and new, ie they are not normal for you and may have started in the last year:

  • persistent pelvic, or abdominal, pain
  • increased abdominal size/persistent bloating - not bloating that comes and goes
  • difficulty eating, or feeling full quickly
  • needing to urinate more urgently, or more often than usual

Occasionally, there are other symptoms:

  • changes in bowel habits
  • extreme fatigue
  • unexplained weight-loss

If you experience any of these symptoms, it's important that you see your GP

  • For more information and to speak to a specialist nurse, call the free Cancer Focus NI helpline on 0800 783 3339

A tireless campaigner

Cancer campaigner and Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Una Crudden died in December 2014, aged 60, after losing her battle with ovarian cancer.

Una, who came from west Belfast, fought tirelessly to highlight how women can spot the signs of the disease known as the "silent killer", while dealing with her own terminal diagnosis.

Six years ago, Una received the shocking news that she had terminal ovarian cancer, after an original misdiagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome.

To raise awareness about what she felt was a low-profile condition, the grandmother brought her campaign to a wider audience on Facebook and Twitter.

At the time she said: "It's too late for me. I'm terminally ill. But this is a cancer that can be treated, if the signs are caught in time."

Despite undergoing intensive sessions of chemotherapy, she worked hard in trying to persuade the Northern Ireland Assembly to launch an ovarian cancer awareness campaign.

She succeeded in hosting the first awareness event at Stormont and persuaded Belfast City Council to light up City Hall in teal, the colour used by ovarian cancer campaigners.

As part of the campaign, hairdressing salons, bingo halls, pharmacies and GP practices across Northern Ireland received thousands of leaflets and posters highlighting the symptoms of the disease.

Her valiant campaigning led to her being named Woman of the Year by the Belfast Telegraph last year.

Following her death, tributes poured in for the mother-of-five, who also had six grandchildren.

Health Minister Jim Well described her as a "remarkable and very brave woman", while her daughter Lisa posted on Twitter: "Goodbye to my beautiful mummy unacrudden. Sweet dreams to the bravest person I know xx."

Belfast Telegraph