With World Ovarian Cancer Day taking place on 8 May, Rona Passmore tells how the vigilance of her GP led to a crucial early diagnosis.
Rona, 54, is a support worker for adults with disabilities. She is divorced and lives in East Lothian with her 17-year-old daughter.
I’ve always been very healthy. I’ve exercised, eaten well and barely had a sick day from work. Then one night in August 2008 I had an excruciating pain in my lower right abdomen, which was persistent enough for me to see my GP the next morning. He examined me and said that if he didn’t know better he’d think I was three or four months pregnant because my stomach was so bloated.
I had heard of ovarian cancer but wasn’t sure of the symptoms. I now know that the bloating was one of several symptoms of ovarian cancer I had without knowing. I was passing urine more frequently, I felt full quickly and had lost a stone and a half, which I put down to the fact that I was walking more frequently. I’d attributed the bloating to the fact that I was approaching menopause, when many women tend to keep weight on around their stomachs. Although he didn’t share his suspicions, my GP sent me to A&E immediately for blood tests and an ultrasound. The ultrasound showed I had a very large cyst on my left ovary, which explained the bloating and also the pain. I was also dangerously anaemic, so they kept me in overnight on a drip. Although no one used the word cancer, I already had a feeling that there was more to the situation than just a cyst.
The following day I was discharged, with a follow-up outpatient appointment two weeks later for a more detailed ultrasound and more blood tests. Those tests showed a significantly raised level of the protein CA 125, which can be an indication of cancer. Even though they had not done a biopsy, my consultant explained then that they wanted to do a hysterectomy. Although he couldn’t – and didn’t – say definitively that it was cancer until the operation had taken place, he did explain that they suspected it might be ovarian cancer. I was quite pragmatic about it. I was nearly 47; I had already had my daughter and thought, “If that is the best thing for my health then let’s do it.” I’m a very positive person and the most important thing was that I was there for daughter, who was ten at the time.
After the operation, my doctors told me that, as well as the cyst, there had been a small malignant tumour on my left ovary, which confirmed it was ovarian cancer and which hadn’t been evident from the ultrasound. Having steeled myself for the news, I wasn’t surprised, and the good news was that they had caught it early: it was only stage 1C. There are four main stages with additional substages – stage 4 is the most serious. The five-year survival if diagnosis occurs at stage 1 is 90%, whereas if diagnosis occurs at stage 4 it’s 3%. They removed both the cyst and the tumour but my surgeon suggested a course of precautionary chemotherapy in case any cells from the tumour had got into my system. A month later I started six treatments of chemotherapy and was incredibly fortunate that the only side effect was a slight temporary numbness in my fingers and toes called peripheral neuropathy. I also took part in a year-long randomised trial for Avastin, a new targeted therapy that aims to prolong life in ovarian cancer patients. Avastin is now available for some women with late-stage ovarian cancer, and I’m proud of the part I played in that.
After the surgery, which was eight years ago this October, my blood results were back to normal. And although I continued to have regular check-ups, I was discharged after five years. My consultant told me that if I have any concerns at all I can bypass my GP and go straight to him, which gave me a huge amount of positivity. I was told that the chances of it recurring are much lower due to my early diagnosis. I have since met so many ladies with ovarian cancer and for the majority, it has been late stage, mainly due to lack of awareness of symptoms from both themselves and their GPs. Since being diagnosed, I have been on a mission to raise awareness about symptoms, but also money for research. I am so incredibly fortunate – and grateful – that my cancer was caught as early on as it was.