The pain in Kristen Larsen’s stomach intensified. It was different to the cramps the then-21-year-old been having over the previous few months. It was crippling, so crippling she was throwing up. Once her GP ruled out pregnancy, she was sent to her local hospital in London, where doctors settled on another possibility – appendicitis.
“It wasn’t until they got into the operating theatre, opened me up and saw the tumours all throughout my abdomen they realised [their misdiagnosis],” Kristen told Mamamia. “They couldn’t even see my appendix because it was covered with them.”
Kristen woke, oblivious. There was a keyhole scar on her abdomen, just like the doctors told her there would be. But they later told her they’d found multiple cysts and more investigation was needed.
“They sent me off for an MRI to map everything out, and within a few days I had a phone call and they told me to come in urgently and to bring a loved one with me. So I knew that it was going to be not good news,” Kristen, now 25, said. “But I was thinking maybe I needed some sort of operation, or maybe it’s going to affect my fertility. But then they dropped the C-bomb on me.”
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, it's estimated that 2018 will see 1,613 new cases of ovarian cancer diagnosed around the country, and sadly, more than 1000 deaths.
Currently, the median age at diagnosis is 63 - 42 years older than Kristen was when she received hers.
Almost everything else about her case, though, was typical. She was diagnosed at a late stage, her symptoms were vague and could have been signs of a host of other (non-life-threatening) conditions.
"I was having classic ovarian cancer symptoms without realising it; I didn't know what they were. I was getting a bloated stomach all the time, constant abdominal pain and I was really tired. But all those things, they don't sound serious. I just thought, 'Oh, I've eaten too much or I need to get to bed earlier.'
Kristen was more than 16,000km from home at the time, realising her dream of living overseas - an adventure she'd undertaken with her sister close to a year earlier. She had found her ideal job working in Human Resources for a large insurance company, and was travelling around Europe whenever she got the chance.
In an instant she felt the promise of that life break.
"The odds were against me. It was incredibly scary, because it's an awful disease," she said. "The treatment is really tough and there were no guarantees. My situation was, basically, do nothing and let the disease completely take over, or try the treatment options that exist and hope for the best."
She chose hope. Not ready to come home, to give up on her life in London, she pursued treatment there, and her mother flew over to care for her through it all. Through the chemotherapy, through the 11-hour operation that included a full hysterectomy and removal of part of her bowel.
The treatment bought Kristen a period of remission that lasted about a year. But then a routine scan showed the cancer had returned, throughout her abdomen and in her left lung.
"I decided it was time to come home. I'd adventured enough. And now that the cancer has come back it's really going to be a lifetime battle," she said. "It's going to keep coming back. It's at a point were it's incurable - the [treatment] goal is just to keep it as stable as possible for as long as possible."
While Kristen said she's simply had to "adjust" to this reality, she doesn't mask how difficult it's been.
Jana Pittman talks to Mia Freedman about the symptoms women need to look out for when it comes to gynecological cancer. (Post continues below.)
"It's really hard to see your friends and everyone else your age doing well in their careers and getting married and having children and buying houses, and all that right-of-passage stuff. It's hard to realise that you're not on that same track.
"But this is my life now."
More than four years on from her diagnosis, Kristen has good periods and bad. She uses the good to travel, spend time with family and friends and raise awareness of ovarian cancer. As an ambassador for the Australian New Zealand Gynaecological Oncology Group (she has participated in two ANZGOG clinical trials), she will tomorrow speak at a free forum in Brisbane titled 'Challenging the status-quo of women's cancers'.
"Being involved in advocacy - it gives a lot of meaning to what I have gone through; like it's not for nothing," she said. "I can help people, I can help patients and survivors and women who might go through this. I can make a difference to their experience."
The 'Challenging the status-quo of women's cancers' forum is being held Saturday 7 April 2018, 1pm – 4.30pm. You can watch the event - including Kristen's talk - live via the ANZGOG GO For Gynae Facebook page.