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The subtle symptoms of ovarian cancer - what a survivor wants women to know

Sandra sits in her backyard holding her dog.
After surviving ovarian cancer, Sandra hopes sharing her story will help more women recognise the symptoms of the disease.

Sandra Fenton was 67 when she was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. Looking back, she realised she’d been experiencing symptoms for some time.

She had excuses for tiredness and lethargy: she was busy preparing to move from New Zealand back to Australia to help look after her grandchildren.

She says, “I was working 10 hour shifts and preparing to move. I was tired, but I was working so much.”

It made sense: even her doctor at the time agreed that this was probably the case.

She also had lower pelvic pain, but nothing extreme.

“It was more of a niggle,” Sandra says. “I didn’t realise it was a symptom.”

While it seems logical to expect a disease as serious as cancer to cause serious pain, in Sandra’s case, the twinge in her stomach was easy to dismiss.

After arriving back in Australia, Sandra still didn’t feel quite right, but put it down to the stress of the move and adjusting from the cool New Zealand climate to the hot and humid end of an Ipswich summer.

“I felt lethargic, I became withdrawn, but I put it down to the heat. I used to love dancing, but instead I stayed home in my room. I had horrendous night sweats, but I thought it was because I was still going through ‘the change’.”

It wasn’t until one morning in January when she woke up with an extremely bloated stomach that Sandra knew something was very wrong.

“I woke up like I was nine months pregnant. I went to the doctor, who sent me straight for a scan and ultrasound. That was on Monday. I went back to the doctor on Thursday and he told me to, “Go and get admitted to hospital.”

Sandra was admitted to Ipswich Hospital, where she found out her diagnosis. She had stage four ovarian cancer, which had spread from her ovaries, though her stomach lining and into her lungs. Her daughter has since told her that doctors warned the family to prepare for the worst.

But, after enduring a long period of treatment – first chemotherapy and then surgery – Sandra made it through and is now happily cancer free.

After a diagnosis of ovarian cancer, a woman’s chance of surviving for five years is only 46% (compared to 91% for breast cancer and 69% for bowel cancer). Sandra now lives with ‘survivor’s guilt’ – why did she pull through when so many other women die from the disease? To combat this, she helps spread the word about ovarian cancer and its symptoms, knowing that early detection saves lives.

She says, “No matter what your age, don’t ignore changes and symptoms or make excuses for them. Go to your doctor. Never think that you’re wasting the doctor’s time with a minor concern. We women need to overcome embarrassment about seeing a doctor for women’s health issues. We need to talk about these things.”

She is also concerned about misconceptions women might have about ovarian cancer, including family history or screening.

“It’s not in my family history or genetics – we did a test. Just because it’s not in your family doesn’t mean you’re safe. And you can’t pick it up with a Pap smear [now a Cervical screening test].”

There is no standard screening test available for ovarian cancer, like there is for breast cancer or human papillomavirus which causes cervical cancer. For this reason, doctors and survivors like Sandra urge women to be aware of the symptoms of ovarian cancer and see their doctor if they are experiencing anything new or abnormal.

Sandra’s family also encourages others to pay attention to changes in their loved one’s health and prompt them to see their doctor about any symptoms. Her daughter says that while they noticed that Sandra wasn’t herself when she moved back to Australia, they all put it down to tiredness from her move. They now know they were seeing the signs of a serious disease.

Listen to the above episode of My Amazing Body for more information about the ovaries.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer

Symptoms of ovarian cancer can include:

  • abdominal or pelvic pain, pressure or discomfort
  • increased abdominal size
  • persistent abdominal bloating
  • excessive fatigue or lethargy
  • needing to urinate often or urgently
  • changed bowel habits
  • feeling full after only eating a small amount
  • appetite loss
  • indigestion
  • unexplained weight loss or gain
  • irregular periods
  • bleeding in-between periods, or;
  • post-menopausal bleeding.

Ovarian cancer is more common in women over 60, but can occur in women of any age.

It’s important to remember that most of the time; the above symptoms will be caused by a much less serious condition than ovarian cancer. Women should treat these symptoms seriously, but try not to worry and head to the GP for answers.

Ovarian Cancer Australia recommends women keep a Symptom Diary, which will help them track their overall health, and record possible symptoms of ovarian cancer or other less serious conditions. They recommend seeing a GP if any of the symptoms of ovarian cancer are experienced multiple times during a 4-week period.

A GP may conduct a physical examination, blood tests, an ultrasound or other imaging tests to check for ovarian cancer, though a definite ovarian cancer diagnosis is made through surgery. Women should return to the doctor for further tests or seek a second opinion if, like Sandra, symptoms that were attributed to another cause persist.

Women like Sandra who have had ovarian cancer and lived to tell the tale are hard to come by. Sandra shares her story to encourage women to pay attention to their bodies, hoping that if more women are diagnosed early, there will be more survivors to share their stories with her.

More information

Ovarian Cancer Australia

Cancer Council – Ovarian Cancer

Cancer Australia – Ovarian Cancer

Health Direct – Ovarian Cancer

The Ovaries - My Amazing Body podcast

Last updated: 4 June 2019