Time to talk about ovarian cancer

Anna Townsend urges women to learn the warning signs of ovarian cancer. Photo: Linda Robertson
Anna Townsend urges women to learn the warning signs of ovarian cancer. Photo: Linda Robertson
An organ the size of an almond left Dunedin woman Anna Townsend with a 2kg problem which, if untreated, could have killed her.

February is ovarian cancer awareness month, and women like Ms Townsend are speaking out about their cancer experience to highlight a disease often not diagnosed until it is too late.

Ovarian cancer is the fourth-leading cause of cancer-related death in New Zealand women, and kills one every two days.

It has a mortality rate of about 60% of women within five years of diagnosis.

Ms Townsend had seen her doctor several times over a five-year span with stomach pains, aches which were mistakenly believed to be appendicitis or gallstones.

''The last time it happened, I said to the doctor that I feel like there is something more going on. She suggested paying for a private ultrasound to check things out - nobody ever suggested ovaries or anything like that.''

However, before the scan appointment, excruciating pain drove Ms Townsend to the emergency department where the cancer was discovered.

With no family history, the final diagnosis came as a total surprise.

''It was something completely out of the blue,'' Ms Townsend said.

''I'd never really heard of it, didn't know what the symptoms were. I knew nothing about it.''

It was a huge crash course, with Ms Townsend going from ignorance to surgery and chemotherapy in a manner of days.

There are four basic types of ovarian cancer: Ms Townsend's was uncommon, but could be treated successfully if caught soon enough.

''They said from the start they were confident that I would be fine ... but it was scary,'' she said.

''There were maybe three-four days between being told they were fairly sure it was cancer to actually having the surgery and finding out how bad it was ... once we knew what was going on, things were handled really well.''

In the end, a 2.5kg tumour was removed from Ms Townsend's body - a mass which had caused her ever-worsening stomach pains.

''It's scary to think how much longer it could have been left before it was found,'' she said.

''Three rounds of pretty rough chemo has ended with it in remission.''

That was two and a-half years ago, when Ms Townsend was 25; if the cancer does not return within the next three years she will be considered cured.

''I don't know at this stage if I will be able to have children or not, but it remains a possibility. Time will tell.''

The help of family and friends and a very supportive workplace helped her recovery.

''People need to talk about ovarian cancer,'' Ms Townsend said.

''No-one is looking for pity. We want other people to know about this cancer so it can be found before it is too late, because that happens too often.

''There are plenty of cancers which are spoken about, but ovarian cancer isn't spoken about enough. But it can be talked about, and if it was, perhaps some of us would have worked things out sooner based on our symptoms.''

mike.houlahan@odt.co.nz

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