Gill was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2017. She describes feeling like 'a completely different person to the confident, capable and optimistic' individual she had been before her diagnosis.
Gill even resigned from a job that she absolutely loved as a result of the impact of her diagnosis. Here, in her own words, Gill describes her empowerment journey, and how access to a health and wellbeing event - part of the cancer Recovery Package - changed her life, and led her to take on her biggest challenge yet, thanks to ovarian cancer charity, Ovacome...
'My journey started in 2017 when I began to have some vague symptoms – I was constantly bloated, I needed to urinate all the time, my period was very erratic and I was very tired. I put this all down to the fact that I was probably starting with the menopause, and took up swimming to try and lose weight. It never entered my head that it might be ovarian cancer, despite the fact that my Mum was diagnosed with it seven years ago.
My symptoms did not subside, and in August when I was on holiday, I was applying suncream to my stomach and could feel a very definite lump. I even buried my head in the sand then, and put it down to my newly-developed abdominal muscles due to all my swimming!
It was my cat Humbug who literally saved my life by jumping on my stomach one night when I was laying on the bed. I inadvertently cried out with the pain, prompting my husband to insist that I go to the doctor to get it checked.
I think I was very lucky because my doctor realised that it could be ovarian cancer, and I was fast tracked through the tests and scans. Initially, we were elated as my CA125 - a test for ovarian cancer - came back as normal, and we thought that I did not have cancer. However, I have since learned that this is not a reliable indicator, and indeed throughout my illness, it has never gone above the normal levels.
That was when my world stopped
My CT scan showed a 17cm mass, and I was admitted into hospital in November for a total abdominal hysterectomy, bilateral salpingo oophorectomy, total omentectomy and pelvic and para-aortic lymphadenectomy. The cyst that was removed from my left ovary weighed 2kg! Ironically, I was in the same ward, and treated by the same surgeon who had looked after my Mum.
In December I went for my follow up appointment, and heard for the first time that my cyst was in fact cancerous. That was when my world stopped. Up until that point, I had been optimistic about the whole thing, and even when I was warned that there was a 90% chance that my cyst was cancerous, I was determined that I would be in the 10% that wasn’t.
We were told that it was stage 1a, and that I wouldn’t need any further treatment, just three-monthly checks.
I remember driving home with my husband, phoning our family and friends, and hearing every single one of them say what good news it was that it was “only” stage one, and how great that I didn’t need further treatment. But my mind had focused on the word “cancer”, and for many weeks I couldn’t move past that.
I felt like a completely different person to the confident, capable and optimistic one I’d been before my diagnosis, and I made the difficult decision to resign from my job as a special needs teaching assistant – a job that I absolutely loved, because I didn’t think I’d be able to do it properly. We were also given the devastating news that Mum’s cancer had returned and her only option now was palliative care.
In February 2018, as my Mum’s health rapidly deteriorated, I moved into her flat to care for her because she didn’t want to go into the hospice. I was holding her hand as she passed peacefully away a month later.
It was at this point that I contacted Ovacome to get some emotional support, and also to find out as much information as I could about my condition. The online forum was an enormous help because I found that I could ask all the questions I needed to, and talk about all my worries and fears – things that I couldn’t say in front of my family because I didn’t want to upset them.
Taking back control
The greatest turning point for me was attending one of the support days in London. It was such an empowering experience to meet so many other ladies in the same situation as myself and to be able to swap stories and ask questions. Sometimes it felt like some of the ladies I was speaking to had read my mind, because what they were saying was exactly what I was thinking!
We had talks on nutrition, exercise and mindfulness, and it was like a lightbulb going off in my mind because I suddenly realised that I could take control of my life again – I could eat healthily and exercise to make sure that if this dreadful disease does come back, I am as fit as possible in order to combat it.
A high point for me was finding out that I had been selected along with 15 other amazing ladies to be a Touch of Teal model in a fashion show at the Mayfair Hotel in London to help raise money for Ovacome and to raise awareness of ovarian cancer. I was thrilled, honoured and a little bit scared but did it in memory of my lovely Mum, who was such a fantastic role model throughout her illness – she was positive and upbeat throughout her whole illness.
I have done talks in Leeds and Manchester about how essential the wellbeing days are for patients to use as a tool to gain control over their lives after diagnosis, and I also feel strongly that more needs to be done to highlight early awareness of symptoms, and as such I have made arrangements to give a talk to the staff of the school where I worked.
Ovacome has been a lifeline for me, and I hope that by publishing my story, I can help to raise awareness of ovarian cancer, and also of the help and support that is available after diagnosis. I hope my lovely Mum would be proud of me.'