Life after an ovarian cancer diagnosis can sometimes look drastically different to the one you had before. When Lisa was diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer, she initially struggled to accept her new normal. Now, three years on, she talks about self-worth, the power of acceptance and why her new life is just a matter of balance…
Life can be good even with cancer. Of course I still have huge 'what the f***' moments, but I also have a 13-year-old son who really needs me to be present and in good humour. My life now is a very different life to the one I had before. Your diagnosis may be life-limiting but that doesn't mean the life you have left can't be a wonderful one.
Eighteen months before my diagnosis I visited my GP due to issues with painful intercourse and irregular periods. Three months later I asked for a referral to a gynae oncologist because my symptoms had not improved. At the time I was scanned and told that I had 'youthful ovaries' and what looked like some functional cysts. The oncologist didn't seem concerned though and gave me a clear bill of health.
Another three months passed and my symptoms continued to worsen. I was still visiting doctors but telling them that I’d had a clean bill of health from the gynae oncologist. I was repeatedly told my symptoms were likely a urinary infection or a pulled muscle. Eventually, the pain got to a level where it was making me sick, and I started to feel a lump in my stomach. By the time I was scanned again you could see a 'little hill' when I laid down.
The final diagnosis was drip fed to me. Initially only two large cysts were seen on scans but the CT showed more. Once I'd had surgery it was confirmed that the cancer had spread quite widely throughout my abdominal cavity, and I was diagnosed with high-grade serous stage III.
Not so bad
After treatment I accepted very quickly that my body would never be the same again. I think my age helped make it less of a big deal. Yes I have scars, but they've saved my life. When you look at it that way, it's really not so bad.
On the flip side, one of the hardest things to deal with is just how much my life has changed. Finding and getting used to my new normal was initially very hard – especially adjusting to the limitations created by this disease. My world got much smaller and I was forced to find a new way to contribute to society. I also have constant pain and limited movement. I've gone from being very active – daily yoga/cycling to work a couple of times a week – to someone who, some days, can't even get up off the sofa. Luckily, these lows aren't too frequent. Mostly, I'm just bloody pleased to be here!
A sense of self
The job role I had before cancer is not the one I have now. Before I got sick I worked in the outdoor/clothing industry. It was very full on and I knew this wasn't something I could go back to. I struggled not being in work because I missed the routine. Having previously trained as a teacher, I applied for part-time roles in education and eventually landed a job at Newcastle College. Later, when I was diagnosed with a recurrence, I managed to complete second line treatment while working, juggling blood tests and chemo. My boss has been outstandingly supportive throughout – allowing me the flexibility to work around my treatment. The impact of this has been hugely uplifting, boosting my sense of self-worth and allowing me to be judged on my abilities, rather than my illness.
I did not have a clue about the symptoms of ovarian cancer when I was diagnosed, and it seems neither did a number of my GPs. As a woman, how did I not know about it? That's why I want to try to help change this for other women and their families. Anything that helps to spread the word is a good thing.
I know it sounds like something you'd read on an Instagram post, but acceptance of your situation will make a huge difference to how well you cope with your diagnosis and life with cancer. Spending time thinking "why me?" and "what if" is just energy wasted. It's important to adjust to your new normal. Remember that some things don't work out and when plans change sometimes you have to change the plan. For example, I was initially over the moon to be able to access Avastin because I saw it as the thing that would keep me here. The price I paid was an ever-growing list of side effects. After 14 cycles I realised it just wasn't worth the extra time it may give me. There is always a balance to be achieved.