One-woman crusade aims to highlight awareness of ovarian cancer
Early detection is crucial as three-quarters ofwomen are given a terminal diagnosis
Una Crudden outside Belfast City Hall: ‘You don’t have a right to complain about things unless you want to do something about it.’ Photograph: Conor Greenan
Una Crudden is 60 today. It is a milestone she never thought she would see when she was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer four and a half years ago.
Cancer is a cruel and frequently arbitrary disease. In Crudden’s case, it was particularly so as she was an exemplar of good health – somebody who didn’t drink or smoked, ate well, exercised a lot, walked miles every day – and used to joke that she was healthier than her five children.
Her diagnosis was also the result of several missed opportunities stretching back to when she had a hysterectomy at 42 and doctors found pre-cancerous cells in her womb.
She asked to have her ovaries removed but doctors told her there was nothing to worry about.
After the summer holidays in 2009, she went to the doctor complaining of constant diarrhoea, stomach bloating and a sharp pain on the right side. He diagnosed her with irritable bowel syndrome.
By that November the pain in her side had solidified into a lump sticking into her ribcage.
At the same time there were five women within a four-mile radius similarly misdiagnosed. One, who subsequently died, was just 36.
On November 22rd 2009, she received her oral diagnosis of bowel cancer, the day of her daughter’s birthday. The tumours were already in her pelvis. She was given three to five years to live with continual chemotherapy to prolong her life.
“I was absolutely devastated. If my GP had diagnosed me properly in September, I wouldn’t be terminal that December. Women all over the world are not getting proper diagnosis of this disease.”
Such a diagnosis would break a lesser person, but Crudden turned her tragic circumstances into a one-woman crusade to highlight awareness of misdiagnosis of ovarian cancer.
“I really believe I was meant to take this disease for this mission, I really do want to make the difference. You don’t have a right to complain about things unless you want to do something about it.”
About 600 Irish women, North and south, are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year.
Outcomes are poor with survival rates of less than 40 per cent. Treatments have barely progressed in the past 20 years and amount to the medical equivalent of slash and burn, according to the advertising mogul Lord Saatchi whose Irish-born wife, the novelist Josephine Hart, died from ovarian cancer two years ago.
It is frequently a silent killer where symptoms manifest themselves as something else and it is too late for many women.
By the time diagnosis is made, three-quarters of women are given a terminal diagnosis.
Crudden has vowed to raise awareness of the early symptoms of ovarian cancer. She has addressed the Stormont health committee twice. She says Ireland and the UK have the worst awareness statistics when it comes to ovarian cancer in Europe.
Know the signs
Just 3 per cent of women know the signs. These include persistent bloating which gets worse, lower back pain, urinary tract infections, change of bowel movements and extreme fatigue.
They can be confused with other conditions, but she advises women to make an appointment with their doctors if they persist beyond 12 weeks.
Thanks to her persistence, doctors in the North have to follow an ovarian pathway which includes certain procedures if women present with certain conditions.
“I managed to do that in just two years and I’m just an ordinary person off the street. Doctors will have to take it seriously. My argument is that, if I was a GP, I’d be testing for the most fatal one first.”
Crudden is now four and a half years into her treatment. There are tumours in her abdomen, liver and on her right lung, and she is due a fifth course of chemotherapy.
“I don’t have much time left, but somebody has to fight for this cause.
“How many chairs will be empty this Mother’s Day for women who could have been alive had they been properly diagnosed?”