My daily routine living with . . . ovarian cancer
The fear of dying is the least of my concerns; what causes me anxiety is the manner of my death and the pain I might have to endure
If I had been diagnosed earlier, my surgery would probably have been a lot less complicated and risky and my prognosis more optimistic. Photograph: iStock
For me, it all started with a wheeze. A gentle wheeze of which I was completely unaware until my son drew it to my attention in the spring of 2015. As the months went by, I developed further symptoms such as a gagging sensation at the smell of tobacco smoke and an intolerance to aerosol hair sprays.
The results of a routine blood test indicated my immune system was functioning below par. My GP put it down to an earlier chest infection. But the wheeze became more discernible and I started to gain weight around my midriff.
Later that year, I developed chest infections and it became more difficult for me to walk at any speed. By spring, 2016, I started to cough up blood and was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a disease characterised by breathing problems and poor airflow. I was prescribed Ventolin, through which I experienced a remarkable improvement in my breathing. However, a later spirometry test revealed there was no evidence of COPD. I continued to cough up blood and my GP referred me to a lung-cancer-screening unit, but there was no evidence of lung cancer.
The wheeze and breathlessness, though, persisted.
We arrived in Spain on January 6th, 2017, for a five-week stay. Within two weeks, I found it difficult to digest food, my stomach had become more distended, my breathing more erratic and I could walk only at a snail’s pace. I visited five different doctors in the space of 10 days. The earlier diagnosis of flatulence was changed to fluid retention.
When I explained my symptoms to my niece, who practises medicine, she told me there was a real possibility that I had cancer somewhere in my system and that I should have a CT scan (which combines X-ray images from different angles to create cross-sectional images of bones, blood vessels and soft tissues) as soon as possible. I immediately left for the public clinic, where they presented me with a written report giving me a clean bill of health. Though this appeared to be a good news story, my niece’s voice was there in the shadows imploring me not to accept the results in the absence of a CT scan. So I plucked up the courage and asked the doctor, given the discomfort I was in, to scrap the report and provide me with a fresh one stating I needed a CT scan. Believe it or not, he rolled the original report in a ball and proceeded to type another one stating a CT scan was called for.
The following day, after carrying out an ultrasound (which uses high frequency sound waves to create an image of part of inside of a body), I was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer.
The nurse explained to me that my cancerous ovaries were producing a fluid which lodged in the cavity between my abdomen and my skin that, in turn, impinged on my lungs and gullet. She reassured me that, if a line was inserted into this region to release some of the fluid, I would get some relief. Within a short time I was fitted with a line and bag, which was emptied intermittently at the rate of 2.5 litres per day and provided enormous relief.
Stage 3 cancer
The journey home in the plane to Dublin was gruelling, as my whole body felt weak and sensitive. When we caught up with the family they were shocked to see my physical condition and the level of fluid I was retaining. We turned up at the hospital where the oncologist explained the process of treatment that was planned for me and confirmed I had stage 3 cancer.
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When my husband enquired about my prognosis, she gave me 1½-five years.
My treatment plan was outlined and, as the process played out, I dealt with the chemotherapy and radical hysterectomy (including bowel and stomach surgery) remarkably well.
At the time of the original diagnosis in Spain, it was intimated that if an earlier scan or specific blood test had been taken, I might have been facing stage 1 or stage 2 cancer instead of stage 3.
It’s not a matter of little significance.
It could actually make a difference between life and death.
If I had been diagnosed earlier, my surgery would probably have been a lot less complicated and risky and my prognosis more optimistic.
It’s now May 2018, and, unfortunately, my cancer has returned. I am currently receiving fortnightly bouts of chemotherapy, but I’m living my life to the full, given the limitations of the treatment.
The fear of dying is the least of my concerns; what causes me anxiety is the manner of my death and the pain I might have to endure.
But apart from this, the thought that my husband, who’s been a tower of strength, might be left alone saddens me so much. Our two sons have been profoundly traumatised by my illness and their love is a huge resource to me. It’s a daunting thought that I might not be a witness to our six grandchildren’s emergence into the adult domain and I suspect this may be the strongest motivator in helping me fight the battle I’m confronted with. They range in age from five and 14 years and they’re all truly super kids.
To all my family, friends and the hospital staff who took great care of me thus far, I would like to express my gratitude and appreciation for their kindness and professionalism.
The recent cervical smear scandal that continues to haunt the media and public doesn’t help to escape from the reality of my situation.
The failed duty of care to all those women and their families is tantamount to treason and the perpetrators should be held to account.
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Damian Cullen (Health & Family Editor)
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