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The terminally ill 'wee granny from West Belfast' who is battling to save other women from ovarian cancer

Poleglass woman Una Crudden has persuaded MLAs to launch an awareness campaign on ovarian cancer.

By Stephanie Bell

It was Belfast granny Una Crudden's proudest moment. Years of tireless campaigning had brought her to Stormont Buildings. As she sat in the public gallery she couldn't contain her emotion. Because of her – "just an ordinary wee granny from West Belfast" – MLAs, the people who could make a real difference, were debating ovarian cancer.

Only for Una the issue of the need for more awareness of the symptoms of the disease known as "the silent killer" would most likely never have made it on to the Health Committee's agenda – a fact that every MLA in the chamber acknowledged during the debate.

Terminally ill Una cried tears of joy as each MLA in turn thanked her by name for bringing the facts to their attention before unanimously agreeing to launch of a public awareness campaign to inform Northern Ireland women of the signs of the disease which kills one woman every hour in the UK.

It's a campaign which will come too late for Una and many thousands of others who have been given terminal diagnosis because the disease was not caught in time.

And it's because she can't make sense of the fact that awareness could be a lifesaver.

'I believe that I got cancer so that I'd be able to do this work and save other lives'

Awareness could prove to be a huge lifesaver and that's why Una has been so determined to do something about what she sees as a tragic and pointless loss of life.

Thanks to her efforts many lives will be saved. It's a proud legacy which she is firmly convinced is the reason why she got the disease.

"I was healthy. I never drank or smoked and I walked six miles daily. I ate well and there was no reason why I should have got this.

"After what happened at Stormont I now believe – and I really do – that I got cancer so that I could do this and help save lives.

"I'm just one person, an ordinary wee granny from west Belfast and I can only reach so many people but this campaign has the power to reach every part of Northern Ireland and save lives.

"If it even saves one life it will have been worth it," she says.

Una (59), a housewife and mum, is married to Felix (57), who is now her carer. They have five kids Lisa (36), Grainne (34), Oonagh (32), Phillip (28) and Nathan (18). They also have six grandchildren and one due in March.

Una was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer in December 2009 and given between three and five years to live.

She is now in her fourth year and has just started her fourth course of chemotherapy.

Initially she had been misdiagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS); something she discovered is common in women with ovarian cancer as the symptoms of both are very similar.

It is also one of the reasons why ovarian cancer is not caught early.

Of five women diagnosed at the same time within a four-mile radius of her Poleglass home, she is the sole survivor.

All five of them had been initially diagnosed with IBS.

The death of one of these women in particular, a 36-year-old mother of four young children, hit Una especially hard and drove her to launch her campaign.

She says: "She had four children aged between three and 10 and she only got a year. I went to her funeral and it was bucketing with rain and her four wee children were sitting in the front of the chapel and I couldn't even look at them.

"It broke my heart and I just thought that wee girl should be with her family, she shouldn't have died.

"I felt that I should do something but I had no idea what or how. I'm the type of person who hides behind the organ when I'm playing in chapel on a Sunday.

"Then I realised that one voice was better than no voice and at least I should try.

"I decided I would be the voice for the four who didn't survive because they didn't have a voice."

She recorded a CD called Angel of Hope to raise funds for the Northern Ireland Hospice.

She also started to give talks to local church and women's groups on ovarian cancer, selling her CD at the end of her talks.

To date she has raised a staggering £33,500 from sales of her CD.

Her own diagnosis was a terrible shock. Her first reaction was fear that she wouldn't get to see her youngest child Nathan, who was just 14 at the time, grow up.

She says: "Nathan was a late child, I was 41 when I had him. I always had a healthy lifestyle but because I was an older mum who wanted to be there for him I became a bit of a health freak.

"I really took care of myself which is why the diagnosis was such a shock. I cried and cried and cried.

"I was in a terrible state and absolutely petrified.

"All I could think about was I am going to die and that I wouldn't be here to see Nathan or my grandchildren grow up."

Una had attended her doctor in September 2009 with a sharp pain in her side; she was going to the toilet more frequently and had diarrhoea.

He diagnosed irritable bowel syndrome.

A few weeks later she felt something in her side while doing press-ups and immediately feared it could be a growth.

Her worst fears were confirmed on December 8 when she was told she had a large tumour on her ovary. She says: "I had had my womb out but not my ovaries and I wanted my ovaries out because I had this fear about cancer.

"One of the sad facts is that women think a cervical smear picks up ovarian cancer but it doesn't. A simple blood test called a CA125 can tell and this is what is so important.

"If a woman is diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome and after taking medication for two weeks the symptoms don't change, then all they need to do is go back to their doctor and ask for the blood test or the GP should invite them back after two weeks for it.

"I didn't know this or I would have asked."

Una says: "It is a silent killer because women don't know the symptoms.

"These are severe bloating, abdominal pain, feeling full very quickly, frequently going to the toilet, pain during intercourse, a change in bowel movements and extreme fatigue.

"But women don't have to have all the symptoms."

Una's own cancer journey has been tough. After her diagnosis she underwent surgery in January 2010 to remove the tumour and by then it had spread to her pelvis.

Chemo had to be delayed because she contacted bacterial pneumonia in February and from this suffered heart failure.

This wasn't picked up for three months.

She says: "I started to swell with fluid and it got to the stage when I couldn't get out of bed.

"I was a size 22 when I went into hospital and had four-and-a-half stone in water drained from me and came out a size 12," she said.

She was put on heart medication and started her first six-month course of chemotherapy.

Instead of the hoped for nine-to-18 months of remission, Una only got seven before her tumours had grown again and she faced another course of chemo.

A recent scan showed that her tumours have doubled in size and she started her fourth course of chemo three weeks ago.

Despite suffering severe nausea this time, Una keeps going and in the past two weeks has accepted an invitation to address Lisburn City Council on ovarian cancer.

She attended a coffee morning in her honour hosted at Stormont by the Alliance Party.

She also recently had her head shaved to raise money for the hospice.

She says: "Even though I have lost my hair four times now it doesn't get any easier. It's still traumatic. This time I wanted to be in control rather than let the cancer be in control so I decided to have it shaved off for the hospice and so far I have raised over £5,000.

"I still cried, it was very emotional but at the same time it gave me strength."

Una was giving a church talk on ovarian cancer in Belfast earlier this year when there were two politicians in the audience – Deputy Lord Mayor Tierna Cunningham and SDLP's Nicola Mallon.

They were so moved by what she had to say that they approached her afterwards and asked if there was anything they could do.

Seeing her chance to access people who had the power to do something, Una asked for "10 minutes" to address Belfast City councillors.

She not only got her wish but through her new influential contacts was invited to Stormont to address each of the main political parties.

"I was able to let them know that women are dying out of ignorance.

"I told them that we are people, not statistics, we are mothers, sisters, wives and daughters and our lives are being cut short needlessly," she says.

"All the politicians said they had no idea how bad it was and they were shocked that it was the fifth overall killer of women in the UK and that 47% of people believe that a cervical smear picks it up.

"They were also shocked that 37% of women in Northern Ireland still don't know the symptoms.

"There are 6,5000 women in the UK diagnosed every year and of these 4,400 will die. My message was that these deaths could be prevented if women were educated on the signs and symptoms."

It was a message that got through and in March the Education Committee agreed to fund a public health campaign.

It will inform GPs and women of the need to catch the disease early. The campaign is due to be launched before Christmas and final details are still being decided.

Una's influence has reached way beyond these shores.

Through the internet she has made friends with women across the UK, some of whom are now following her example. They too have been lobbying their councils for a similar awareness campaign.

Sadly her days are numbered but Una lets nothing get her down now.

She says: "When the campaign is launched I will be able to say 'I did that'. I can rest now. I just take one day at a time. I think that's the only way to get through it.

"No-one has a promise for tomorrow.

"I believe the Holy Spirit has given me the strength.

"This is my purpose.

"I firmly believe that I was meant to do this because against all the odds I got this disease.

"I feel so passionate about it and so privileged to be able to talk to people about it. I don't know how I am not nervous talking to people. I think it's because I knew I can save women's lives and protect my children and my grandchildren."

The tell-tale signs of ovarian cancer

The symptoms of ovarian cancer can be difficult to recognise, particularly in early stages of the disease. This is because they are often the same as symptoms of other less serious conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome or pre-menstrual syndrome.

Three main symptoms are more frequent in women diagnosed with ovarian cancer:

* increased abdominal size and persistent bloating (not bloating that comes and goes)

* persistent pelvic and abdominal pain

* difficulty eating and feeling full quickly, or feeling nauseous

* Other symptoms, such as back pain and needing to pass urine more frequently than normal, may be the result of other conditions in the pelvic area. They are probably not ovarian cancer, but may be present in some women with the disease.

* If you have any of these symptoms, keep a symptom diary to see how many of these symptoms you have over a longer period.

* If you've already seen your GP and the symptoms continue or get worse, it is important to go back and explain this, as you know your body better than anyone.

Belfast Telegraph


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