My Health Experience: ‘Every day, I make the choice to get up and have a good day’

I would have been at a very low risk for ovarian cancer. There’s no family history of it and I was under 40

My children are my priority, says Sara Murphy, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012. Photograph:  Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

My children are my priority, says Sara Murphy, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Tue, Apr 22, 2014, 01:00

I was told very brutally in July 2012 that I had stage 4 advanced metastatic ovarian cancer that had spread to most of my organs. I had shadows in my bowel, fluid in my lungs and liver, and the cancer had spread throughout my abdomen. I had tumours on my ovaries. I asked what the prognosis was. I was told that, typically, it would be between six months and two years. It was inoperable at the time. I have epithelial ovarian cancer which is the most common type.

I was ill for six weeks before my diagnosis. While on holidays in France with my family, I had an ache in my side. My sister, who’s a nurse, suggested it might be gallstones. It got progressively worse. I couldn’t sleep at night and generally felt unwell. After going to the doctor for several weeks, a locum GP said she thought there was something serious going on. I went to A&E at Cork University Hospital. I had a scan and tumours showed up.

In hindsight, about a year earlier, I’d had episodes of stabbing pain. I had an ultrasound on my gallbladder and that was clear. I was burning the candle at both ends. I had just returned to work. My daughter, Tara, was just one and Cathal was three. I was struggling and juggling.

After my diagnosis, I was told that the best course of action would be to try to shrink the tumours and clear up as much of the cancer as possible before surgery. I had to have chemotherapy before surgery as surgery wouldn’t have been effective otherwise. Within a week, I had my first session of chemo. It was physically and emotionally hard. I got very sick at home on day four after my first chemo session. That was because I hadn’t taken my anti-sickness tablets as I had been feeling okay. The rest of the chemo was very doable.

Hysterectomy
I had a radical hysterectomy where everything was taken out – the ovaries, the womb, the Fallopian tubes and the fatty layer that protects the internal organs. It was successful surgery. The four chemo sessions that I’d had did a good job. I had two more chemo sessions after surgery.

I had had a Caesarean section before and, in some sense, the surgery was a bit similar to that. I recovered thanks to great support at home. The hardest thing was being thrown into an early surgical menopause. It was very dramatic. I had to go on sleeping tablets for about six months.

I would have been at a very low risk for ovarian cancer. There’s no family history of it. I was under 40. Typically, it happens to women who are in their 60s. They’re post-menopausal, they wouldn’t have had children and wouldn’t have used contraception. There’s no obvious reason why I got ovarian cancer.

I was quite pro-active about getting counselling. I went to Arc House and met one of the counsellors there. I was worried I was going to die tomorrow. She was very helpful. She said there would be time for me to do what I wanted to do and say what I wanted to say. That was one of my big stresses. I’m a bit of an organiser. In one of my first panics, I went out and bought clothes for children aged four, five and six.

No one can really say what my prognosis is now. I responded well to the treatment. I have incurable cancer but it’s being well managed and is treatable. After I finished my frontline chemo in February 2013, I started on maintenance chemotherapy. It kills any rapidly duplicating cancer cells. I’ve also been put on a clinical trial called Avastin.

The cancer will most likely recur. But everyone seems to react differently to this particular cancer. That gives me hope. I’m quite positive. Every day, I make the choice to get up and have a good day and put a smile on my face.

I haven’t yet returned to work. I’m a paediatric physiotherapist with Enable Ireland. I miss my work and my colleagues but if I was there, I’d be in a lot of contact with children carrying germs. I’m hopeful that I will resume working but it’s not a priority at the moment. My children are my priority. I’ve talked to them and they know I have medical appointments. I try to go to them in the mornings so we have the afternoons together. Recently, my five-year-old son said that when he marries, I’m going to be the first person he’s going to invite to the wedding.

Here and now
I’d like if there was awareness of ovarian cancer. It’s not visible and, in most cases, it’s not diagnosed until it’s at an advanced stage. Unlike breast cancer and cervical cancer, there’s no screening for it yet which makes it very difficult. I attend regular conferences run by Ova Care (ovacare.com) and the question of screening always comes up. There are little indicators.

Women need to be aware of their own bodies and follow up anything that seems wrong. In Ireland, 315 cases of ovarian cancer are diagnosed every year.

I live in the here and now. I’m as happy out in the back garden with my children as I was in New York recently for my 40th birthday. That was fantastic, but there’s nothing else I want to do. I’m interested in quality of life and I’m going to start a course in meditation. It’s important to look after myself emotionally and psychologically.

In conversation with
Ova Care is an online ovarian cancer community.