As a nurse, Janet was used to being able to spot other people’s ailments. It was only when she started to display her own list of worrying symptoms that she struggled to piece things together...
I always said I didn’t notice any symptoms – but the truth is that they were there. As a nurse, if I’d heard a friend discussing my symptoms, I would have been urging them to see a GP immediately. Health professionals are used to diagnosing other people, but when it comes to your own body it’s sometimes easy to excuse the little things. I just never pieced it all together. I had no knowledge of ovarian cancer before I was diagnosed. Perhaps if I had, a bell would have rung when I started to get symptoms. If I had no idea I had ovarian cancer, then how could anyone else?
Hitting a wall
Prior to my diagnosis I’d been experiencing bloating – which I put down to overindulging – and pain during sex. I’d also had a sore hip and frequent sciatic pain – pain and tingling in my leg. In hindsight, the sciatic pain might have been the tumour pressing on a nerve, especially as it disappeared after my debulking surgery.
I work at Plymouth University with student nurses, and one day I was acting as a patient in a study scenario for the students. During the mock examination they found my oxygen saturation was incredibly low (lower than the critical example given to the students). My colleague later told me they were worried that I was at risk of a stroke. Things were slowly starting to add up.
Not long after lockdown hit, and I began working from home permanently. Sitting at a desk for longer than usual made me notice a new breathlessness, but I just put it down to not moving around as much as before. Then one day I was out for a walk and had to stop because I couldn’t catch my breath. It just felt like I’d hit a wall. At this point I went to see my GP who sent me for a chest x-ray and referred me for further tests.
I couldn’t wait for the referral as my breathing was soon so bad that I couldn’t even get to the loo. I ended up in A&E and underwent a CT scan and a series of blood tests. I also had fluid drained from my lung.
Waiting for the test results was difficult. I think now that one of the worst things about cancer is the ‘in between' bits – those times you have to wait for things. I finally received a call to say that they’d found some suspicious cells which they believed had spread from the ovaries. When the consultant later confirmed that it was ovarian cancer, I couldn’t take it in. No matter how knowledgeable and how prepared I thought I was, I wasn’t.
Initially I had surgery and chemotherapy. They tell you before chemotherapy that your hair might fall out. I thought I would be okay with that, but I really wasn’t. My son and my husband shaved their heads for charity at the same time, so we were bald together! The doctors told me that I’d responded well to the chemotherapy and hearing that was probably the first time I cried with relief. It just felt like the best present I could ever receive.
After treatment I became obsessed with my CA125 markers. At this point I’d become quite good at recognising any worrying signs, so when my markers started to rise and I began having stomach pains, I knew immediately that something wasn’t right. Less than a year after finishing my first round of treatment I was once again facing chemotherapy. This time there are signs that the cancer is spreading but my oncologist has told me that we still have many options.
Being kind to yourself
Initially I got angry that the doctors wouldn’t give me a timeline, but then I had to remind myself, what would I do with that information anyway? The only real option is to live each day and enjoy yourself.
Everything changes with a cancer diagnosis. You want to be the person that you were before, but you have to get used to a new kind of normal. You might never be the old you, but the new you is okay too. Just learn to be kind to yourself and listen to your body.
I like to think I’m quite a stoic and confident person, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t still tough. I knew that if I was struggling, then other people would be too. I'm now passionate about education in cancer care, as nurses and health professionals we need to know how to look after people both physically and emotionally. Now I’ve been on the other side I know we could all be doing more for people's mental health.
Target Ovarian Cancer
I found Target Ovarian Cancer quite quickly. As soon as ovarian cancer was mentioned I came home and got straight on my laptop. When you first start to look you think it’s all doom and gloom, but your information walked me through everything in a non-frightening way. It’s also been a big help hearing other people's stories and how they dealt with everything. You read the stories and then when you’re feeling down, you can just pick yourself up and say, “I'm going to be like that person”. I think to myself, “if they’ve done it, I can do it too”.
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