By LUCY ORMONDE
Helen Hatzis is considered one of the lucky ones.
And that comes despite the fact that she’s been battling ovarian cancer for five years.
Helen is one of the lucky ones because 60 per cent of the 1200 women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year in Australia don’t live for more than five years.
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She’s one of the lucky ones because she’d finishing having children when she had a full hysterectomy to rid her of the two orange-sized tumors that were growing on her ovaries.
And she’s one of the lucky ones because her body presented symptoms before it was too late to do anything.
Helen has spoken to Mamamia today with the hope that her story will encourage women to be on the lookout for signs of ovarian cancer.
It was 2008 when Helen, who is a mum of two teenagers, was first diagnosed.
She was 42 and working as a speech therapist at a hospital.
“I was having abdominal pains for a period of about 6 to 12 months prior to the diagnosis. I was having pain during sex, which was probably the major symptom for me. I also had bloating and intermittent pain,” Helen says.
Helen went to her GP, who initially suspected Irritable Bowel Syndrome or early-onset menopause. Neither Helen or her doctor seriously considered ovarian cancer and that’s largely because the symptoms are so vague.
According to the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation, those symptoms can include “Vague abdominal pain or pressure, feeling of abdominal fullness, gas, nausea, indigestion different to your normal sensations, sudden abdominal swelling, weight gain or bloating, persistent changes in bowel or bladder patterns, low backache or cramps, abnormal vaginal bleeding, pain during intercourse and unexplained weight loss.”
But the thing about ovarian cancer is that sometimes the symptoms don’t present themselves until a late stage – or sometimes they do present themselves but they’re caused by something else.
“When they finally did an ultrasound in 2008, it was because I was going to the toilet all the time – I was going about every 10 minutes,” Helen says.
“As soon as he (the technician) put the ultrasound on, he said ‘oh it’s not your bladder, you’ve got this huge ovarian tumour that’s pressing on the bladder,” she tells me.
“To some extent I have to say I was relieved that there was something wrong because one of the doctors actually asked me if I thought there was a psychological component to my case.”
But she says that feeling soon dissipated when doctors told Helen could be ovarian cancer.
Helen had a radical hysterectomy and was officially diagnosed with borderline ovarian cancer – a less malignant type of cancer that doesn’t require any further treatment.
“I was one of what they call ‘the lucky ones’ because they said it was borderline ovarian cancer, which has a slightly different pathology and a different prognosis. They told me at the time that everything would be fine and that I wouldn’t require any follow up treatment.’
But in 2010, Helen started noticing similar symptoms similar to the ones she experienced in 2008 and was told that the tumor had come back.
She went into remission after radical chemo. And then in 2012 the tumor came back again.
So Helen had chemo again. She went into remission. And then earlier this year, Helen got those same symptoms again and doctors confirmed that the cancer had come back for a forth time.
“I’m currently having chemo, this one’s probably the worst,” Helen says.
“This one’s not too bad physically – I do feel sick – but I just feel so exhausted of it constantly coming back. And I just feel like there is no reprieve – it’s just unrelenting,” she says.
“They call it the silent killer but I find that a lot of women with the disease are actually silent because they’re so busy fighting the disease and constantly having chemo and recurrences.”
So how do you find the strength to keep going?
“I always have to hope that this treatment will knock it on the head,” Helen says.
“And that’s why I think research and raising awareness are just so important for this disease because it just has such devastating consequences – and that’s especially for younger women who haven’t actually had children yet.
“We need that early detection test and the research so that hopefully the silver ribbon will become as well recognised as the others.”
The Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation is commited to finding a cure and methods of early detection of ovarian cancer. To do your part, you can donate here.
In Australia, one woman dies every 10 hours from ovarian cancer. The key to changing this statistic and giving women with ovarian cancer a better long-term outlook is early detection. L’Oréal Paris has been a proud partner of the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation (OCRF) since 2009. While awareness of the disease has increased amongst Australians, four in nine women still believe that a pap smear will detect ovarian cancer. The sad reality is that there is no simple early detection test. Ovarian cancer remains a silent killer, with two thirds of women diagnosed in the advanced stage of the disease.
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