Ovarian cancer is the fifth deadliest cancer in women, according to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance. Nicknamed ‘the silent killer’, its symptoms are hard to identify and are often misdiagnosed as ageing or irritable bowel syndrome.
Unidentified symptoms, combined with a lack of effective therapies, explain in part why 11 people in the UK die of ovarian cancer every day, and despite reminders to “check your bumps for lumps” most people are worryingly ill informed about this disease.
Florence Wilks was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer in 2010 and told she had 12 to 18 months to live. Florence described being haunted by symptoms for two years, including “really extreme” backache, heavy bleeding and tiredness. Doctors had repeatedly treated each symptom individually, rather than studying them together.
Florence is quick to point out that the “silent killer” moniker is misleading, as she did experience symptoms. The NHS states the four main symptoms are abdominal swelling and/or persistent bloating, feeling full quickly, abdominal or pelvic pain, and the need to urinate more frequently than normal.
Contrary to popular belief, routine Pap smear tests do not identify ovarian cancer, and the NHS stops providing these to patients over the age of 65. The blood test CA125, which measures the level of cancer antigen 125 in the blood, can be used to identify the disease. But Sue Hegarty, director of support services at the Ovarian Cancer Organisation Australia, warns 50 per cent of women will not see a rise in the antigen during the early stages of the disease, rendering the test “imperfect”.
It was this test that eventually confirmed Florence’s diagnosis. The normal range for test results should be between 0 and 30. Florence’s level was 2100. It was at this point she knew it was serious. “Serious means you have to tell your children you’ve got advanced cancer,” she says. “Serious means the end of the world. Serious means you’re in a situation you’d never imagine you’d be in your forties.”
The key cause of the disease is genetic. If a relative has previously had ovarian or breast cancer there is a high chance a woman will inherit a mutation of the BRCA gene, which often leads to cancer. Women with this gene mutation, found through a simple blood test, can opt for preventive surgery. Figures released from the National Cancer Institute show women with a mutation in the BRCA gene have a 72 per cent chance of developing breast cancer and a 44 per cent chance of getting ovarian cancer.
Eight years on, Wilks has undergone two major surgeries and numerous rounds of chemotherapy. She now takes a tablet called Olaparib 12 times a day, which has helped to prevent a progression of the disease. This has allowed her to live “a glorious life” with ovarian cancer, and she has raised £40,000 for medical research charity Ovarian Cancer Action.
Almost two decades are stolen from a woman who dies of ovarian cancer in the UK. Ovarian Cancer Action is trying to raise £1 million to protect future generations. Learn more at www.ovarian.org.uk.