For Ethnic Minority Cancer Awareness Month, Lena shares her and her mum Savita's story. Please be aware this story includes some content that may be upsetting...
My beautiful mum Savita died from ovarian cancer in February. We were very close – I was an only child, and my dad had passed away suddenly when I was 20, so we’d lived together after that. When I got married and had my kids Sai and Suri, she’d look after them. We really relied on each other.
Start of symptoms
A couple of years ago, my mum had been on holiday to India to see family for a few weeks after Christmas. She was fine before she went, she'd even had a couple of routine health checks at the GP which looked normal. When she got back, she wasn’t feeling right – she was bloated, unable to eat, and feeling full after meals. She told me later that she’d also had unusual bleeding. She saw the GP and they passed it off as a stomach upset following the change in water from India to the UK.
Despite going to the GP a few times, we were told to give it more time for her stomach to settle. Later, it was thought to be gallbladder issues. Mum was referred for further tests, including a CA125 blood test, which came back very high. She would need an internal ultrasound. While we waited, she started to feel worse, and I ended up taking her to A&E. She had a short hospital stay and when they finally did the ultrasound, they found a mass. Doctors worked to get her feeling a bit better and we visited the oncologist.
Mum and I spoke Gujarati together, and her English wasn’t perfect, so sometimes I’d listen and explain things to her after. I always wanted to prepare so that I knew what might be coming and could explain it clearly. I Googled ovarian cancer charities at this point, and I decided to call Target Ovarian Cancer’s support line. I spoke to Val. It was brilliant – she was so clear and answered every single question I had. We didn’t yet know that it was ovarian cancer, but by speaking to her I felt so much more prepared going into meetings with the gynae oncology team.
The ultrasound and a biopsy found it was ovarian cancer. The tumour was in a difficult place to operate, so Mum had three rounds of chemotherapy first. It went well, and three months later they were prepping her for surgery. Unfortunately, the surgery wasn't successful, because the cancer had spread more than they thought. The surgeon hadn’t been able to operate at all. It was so difficult to hear that, even though we knew there were other treatment options.
Mum did well recovering from the operation and started on maintenance drug bevacizumab (Avastin®). Her quality of life began to return and she didn’t feel any side effects, which was great. She could get out and about again and see her friends. It was so good to see her get her independence back.
At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, face to face appointments stopped. The regular blood tests sometimes got missed and we found it hard to cope with the uncertainty that brought. Then Mum started to have some symptoms again, and in summer they confirmed that the cancer had begun to grow again. They tried several different treatments, including weekly chemotherapy, but by Christmas she needed a break.
After another scan and a spell in hospital, Mum decided she wanted to go home. We had her there for a short time and then she was referred into a hospice. She died not long after, and I held her hand and told her how much we loved her. It was just before the hospice opened for visitors after the pandemic. Val was a lifeline to me again – she rightly reminded me that support doesn’t stop just because a loved one is gone.
More awareness needed
I was very close to my mum – I saw her often and she lived just 10 minutes away from us in Bradford. She lived alone for 18 years, and I remember how much she enjoyed her independence. She was always out for walks and meeting friends for coffee. My kids Sai and Suri loved her.
I think there needs to be more awareness about ovarian cancer among Asian women – sometimes it can be hard to approach doctors with body issues, and this extends especially to breast and gynaecological problems. Younger women my age and younger are more comfortable with it all – but I know it would benefit older women within the Asian community to know more about ovarian cancer and see female doctors where possible. That’s why I’m telling my story now.