By Catriona Harvey-Jenner
Whilst suffering from a bloated belly regularly isn’t necessarily a sign of something more serious, for some women, it is. Like Fiona, 33, who mistook the signs of ovarian cancer for something far less life-changing.
“Like many 20-something women, I was suffering from IBS symptoms; I’d bloat, get an upset stomach and I had acid reflux. Unlike many young women, however, my IBS symptoms turned out to be something a lot more severe: ovarian cancer.
When I first got the IBS symptoms, I wasn’t too concerned. I went to the doctor, cut down on gluten, cut out wheat, came off dairy and tried lots of different options to try to tackle it. But when the frequency and intensity of the acid reflux and the stomach cramps increased, I couldn’t help but worry there was something else going on.
It felt like I’d swallowed bleach; my bloating became almost permanent even when I hadn’t eaten, and there were certain foods that would just go straight through me. So I went back to the doctors several times, but for some reason, I trusted what they were saying to me. It was IBS.
I was given peppermint capsules, a medication called Buscopan, and was advised to ‘de-stress’ my life (as if that was so easy), but it was never even considered that the problem might be gynaecological and nothing to do with my digestive system. My periods were completely normal, so there was no reason for the doctors or myself to link it with that. I just thought I was unlucky to have IBS.
Mistaking Ovarian Cancer Symptoms for IBS
But all that changed when I was 24. One day, I had a really awful pain on the right-hand side of my lower abdomen, which was so excruciating that I ended up on the floor. It soon passed and didn’t return, but shortly after I began having a period that lasted for about a month.
I had just began a job as cabin crew, and had been warned it was quite common for bodily changes like that to occur when you start flying long haul. So although my periods had been regular up until then, I still didn’t consider that there might be anything seriously wrong with me.
Then, my stomach started to grow. I’d started personal training lessons, and at first when I noticed that my stomach felt hard I was super proud of myself for the muscles I was developing. I never considered they could be ovarian cancer signs. But once again, I was ignoring a symptom.
My stomach got bigger and bigger until it was domed in shame, and when I’d ruled out pregnancy I went back to the doctors who finally referred me for an ultrasound. When I got there, the nurse was so concerned about what she’d spotted that she told me to go straight to A&E. I had a cyst attached to my ovary that, it turned out, had grown to 15 centimetres by 10, and was filled with four litres of fluid. It weighed 9 pounds.
The pain I’d experienced that day, I later found out, was the cyst having twisted my ovary so much that it had effectively killed it. It had completely squashed the organ inside of me. That was my ovarian cancer diagnosis.
The bizarre thing was, when doctors did the standard CA125 blood test on me, which can detect ovarian cancer, my results came back normal. Apparently, that’s not that uncommon with the CA125; it can give false results for so many different reasons, cancer-related or not. So while they knew I had a tumour and they operated on me to remove it, nobody thought it was cancerous until a few days after surgery, when they did the biopsy.
The surgery, it turned out, could have been life-threatening in itself. My cyst was described as looking like ‘a bunch of grapes’, and each one needed draining of the fluid it contained. Thankfully, my consultant did this with such precision that there was no spillage; if the cancerous cells had leaked elsewhere in that area, chemotherapy wouldn’t have worked. I feel like I owe my life to the NHS.
Because of where the cancer had grown, my consultant explained ovarian cancer treatment meant I would have to be operated on again to have my appendix and part of my bowel removed in case any of the cancer cells had transferred. That was difficult for me, more on an emotional level than a physical one, because I was left with scars all over my stomach.
I was also suffering from a hormone imbalance because I only had one ovary left instead of two, which made me very emotional. I was quite spotty, I’d get hot flushes, my periods were every two weeks and my body just didn’t look like mine. It was horrible.
Eight years later, I’ve still got one ovary, which works twice as hard, but I’ve always known I’d have to get it removed at some stage. That removal will be soon, so I’m having my eggs frozen this summer and we’ll go from there.
I’d love to have children one day, and knowing I’ll need to go through IVF to have them is scary. It makes me anxious in case it doesn’t work, and I know how difficult it can be. Cancer never goes away; it’s always there like a shadow following me around. It’s there in my six-monthly check ups; it’s there when I have scares it’s come back, and it will be there when I come to think about having children.
But then I think about how lucky I am; I’m still here, and I have the option to have my eggs frozen. Some women have to have all their reproductive organs out, and women 20 years ago wouldn’t necessarily have had IVF available to them.
I didn’t know the first thing about ovarian cancer before my diagnosis, but I hope other women do. It’s the 6th most common cancer, yet so many people don’t know the symptoms. They don’t know that cervical smear tests don’t test for ovarian cancer, too. But you do know your own body, so if you think something’s wrong, stick to your guns and push to get it tested.”
So what are the symptoms of ovarian cancer? They can include (but aren’t limited to):
- Persistent bloating
- Persistent stomach pain
- Finding it difficult to eat or feeling full quickly
- Needing to wee more often
- Back pain
- Changes in your bowel habits (diarrhoea or constipation)
- Feeling tired all the time
SOURCE: Women’s Health