I had just turned 30 and returned after a few years living in London and backpacking around the world when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer for the first time.
My ovarian cancer story began with what I would later learn were some of the key signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer. I was feeling very bloated, my stomach was distended and I could not go to the toilet. Like many women, I was initially misdiagnosed.
My GP was treating me for constipation and only after six weeks with no reprieve he told me I needed to visit my local hospital to see if they could help. I was admitted on arrival. The next morning, I was taken for a scan where doctors found a 20cm x 30cm tumour on my left ovary. Initially, doctors told me they were 95 per cent sure it was benign, but after biopsy I got the call … it was malignant. I commenced treatment.
Just under two years later, I started feeling tired and bloated again and 'not quite right'. I had been having my tumour marker tests and check-ups at the hospital regularly and, so far, had been told that I was ‘all clear’. I wasn’t sure about this. My body was telling me otherwise.
I had just moved into the city; I went to a new GP and expressed my concern that there may be something going on. He told me I was being paranoid and that the stress of my job was the cause of my symptoms. I felt patronised. I knew that he wasn’t right. I knew that I had to listen to my body.
A couple of weeks later, I went for my usual check-up with my oncologist and discussed my concerns. He decided to send me for a scan – even though my tumour markers had once again come back clear – and put my mind at ease. I booked the scan for the next day, but before I could leave home, I experienced excruciating pain, I couldn’t walk and was forced to call an ambulance.
I was taken to hospital and, lo and behold, a scan revealed another very large tumour on my right ovary that had 'torted” (twisted). Again it was malignant. I was told that I was to have chemo after having the tumour removed. After the operation I sat in the hospital for a week while the chemo professor and my oncologist debated how to proceed. In the end, they decided that the cancer was ‘contained’ and that was that. It wasn’t.
LISTEN: Jana Pittman talks to Mia Freedman about the symptoms women need to look out for when it comes to gynecological cancer (post continues after audio...)
In July 2014, my GP sent me for a scan on my abdomen, as I had been experiencing some pain (I also had a colectomy and hernia operation in the period between totalling 13 stomach operations in all!)
The top of my left lung showed a 'spot'. My GP decided to refer to me to an oncologist at a private Brisbane hospital, as my previous oncologist had retired. At my appointment this particular oncologist dismissed the ‘spot’ as plural plaque or something similar. She said it was nothing to worry about. I asked her if she was sure and she said, if I wanted, I could be referred to a pulmonary fellow in the hospital. I agreed.
I saw a wonderful doctor at the hospital a short time after that and he mentioned he wasn't so sure what it actually was and wanted to do a biopsy. Unfortunately they could not access the lump so he decided to instead do a PET scan. It came back clear. Relief.
I went on holiday to Alaska and Canada. Upon returning to Brisbane and some three months later I had another PET scan on the ‘spot’ as a precaution. It had tripled in size. A biopsy was still not an option. I felt that my only option was to remove the ‘spot’. It felt like a ticking time bomb. I still couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right.
In December 2014, I had the ‘spot’ and a small wedge of my lung removed. And then the call came. It was malignant and the doctor needed to see me ASAP.
In January 2015, I commenced 18 gruelling weeks of chemotherapy. It brought me to my knees but I'm still here and kicking!
After three cancer diagnoses, what I have learned?
I know my body best.
In all three cases, I was misdiagnosed. I knew something wasn’t right so I pushed for further investigation.
I am resilient.
Going through 13 operations and five months of weekly chemo is gruelling. But I got through it.
I have a renewed strength. I push myself when I feel like giving up. I suffer residual health problems and chronic back pain from my many operations, but I don’t give up! Pain will not stop me from living a joyful and healthy life, and I keep getting up and out and try to live life to the fullest.
Most importantly, I am grateful.
People ask me often, “You must think …why me?” To me this is a pointless question. You will never be able to get an honest answer.
But yes … I do ask “Why Me? ” I ask myself often why I am so incredibly lucky to still be here and able to lead a joyful happy life? I find joy in the smallest and simplest things. Although it took away my ability to have children, I have an incredible mother, husband, family and friends who supported me the whole way through.
It has taught me to have empathy for others and to be grateful for every single day that I have.
With the lowest survival rate of any women’s cancer and with little improvement in treatment over the last 30 years, Ovarian Cancer Australia is urging all Australians to take a stand and show their support during Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month this February. Approximately 1,600 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and over 1,000 succumb to the disease every year in Australia. Only 44 per cent of women diagnosed will survive five years post diagnosis. To find out how you can host an Afternoon Teal on Teal Ribbon Day (28 February), visit the Afternoon Teal website.
You can listen to Mia Freedman's full interview with Jana Pittman on the No Filter embed below...