'My symptoms were dismissed by doctors. Then they felt something "the size of a full-term baby".'

As a working mum of three, fatigue, bloating, and niggling aches and pains, didn’t stand out as extraordinary to 39-year-old Liv Curtis. For a while she ignored her symptoms, considering most of them to be part and parcel of life as a woman, but eventually decided to run them by her GP.

A blood test showed Liv was anaemic, and a pelvic ultrasound discovered a small ovarian cyst, considered both common and unremarkable. "I was told it wasn’t a concern," Liv tells Mamamia.

"I didn’t bother following up with my OBGYN."

Her symptoms continued to increase — her appetite reduced resulting in weight loss, intimacy became uncomfortable, and she started experiencing some bladder weakness. She continued to explain the symptoms away, until she found the lump.

"My husband put his hand on my tummy one day and said he could feel something hard," she says. "At about the same time, I became so exhausted that I couldn’t stay awake beyond 6pm."

Watch: A closer look at Routine Genetic Carrier Screening. Article continues after the video.

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Liv returned to her GP, who felt something "the size of a full-term baby" in her stomach.


"We started with a pregnancy test which was negative. He told me I was too young for cancer, (but) then sent me for an MRI."

The scan showed a growth in Liv’s pelvis and abdomen that weighed three kilograms, prompting Liv to book an appointment with an OBGYN.

"I was asked to wait for the doctor as she wanted to come and say hello and have a chat. My rational mind was telling me something was wrong, but I was talking myself out of panicking."

Liv was then taken to 'the quiet room'.

"Most women who have had a pregnancy know the quiet room is where bad news is shared," says Liv.

"All she could say to me was 'I’m so sorry, I think you have ovarian cancer.' I felt like I was free falling, like the floor had fallen away from under me. We just sobbed and time stopped."

The diagnosis couldn’t be confirmed until the cancer was under a microscope — there is no test — but a specialist surgeon agreed Liv most likely had a slow-growing ovarian cancer.

"He asked me about my children and if our family was complete. I told him 'yes', and he said 'that makes this a lot easier. I think I can take it out.' My husband and I burst into tears."

Liv in hospital. Image: Supplied.


"I was full of terror but I decided I'd do whatever needed to be done."

"Never in a million years did I think I would get cancer," says Liv, who was told she’d most likely need major surgery, followed by chemotherapy.

 "The surgeon explained to me they were going to 'run me over with a truck'," Liv says. "I was asked to give permission for them to take whatever was needed to remove the cancer. Five specialists came together to do a surgery that took the whole day."

The surgeons cut Liv from sternum to pelvis to perform a radical hysterectomy, meaning her cervix, ovaries, spleen, and omentum were removed. Fifty per cent of her large bowel and a portion of her small intestine were also removed.

"I had a stent placed in my ureter to save my kidney and cancer was peeled away from my duodenum. The disease had spread to my diaphragm, and that needed to be scraped away too. I woke up with a tube in my throat and my husband whispering in my ear that 'they got it all'."


Surgery this extensive is rare, Liv was told. But given her young age, the surgeons believed it was worth it. That meant the process was hard on Liv’s body, and there were some complications, including a punctured diaphragm and an infection, that left Liv with two huge drains in her chest.

"Every procedure was painful and traumatic but I was willing to put my head down and do it because I was going to live."

Liv spent 17 days in hospital, returning home to recover for several more weeks, before an infection sent her back. Chemotherapy would have to wait until she was strong enough.

Life goes on.

The day Liv got her diagnosis was the 'pizza and reading night' at her children's school.

"It seemed too bizarre that I still had to be a parent while I knew what was happening inside me," she says.

"I asked Kev what we would do, and he said, 'we go home and make pizza and read books with our children'. So we did. The world kept turning, and I had to keep my head up and deal with it with a smile on my face. My kids look to me to show them everything is OK."

But in her quiet moments, Liv’s thoughts darkened.

"I used to rehearse how I would say goodbye to them which would almost send me into a panic attack. It took a long time for me to let go of those thoughts and focus on the present."


Liv’s doctor didn’t talk about life expectancy or prognosis, but confirmed he was pleased with "how well she was doing."

"I was very careful not to read any stats or online articles. I knew that the best chance of long-term survival came with achieving zero raining visible disease after surgery and they did that.

"The average five-year survival rate of ovarian cancer is 49 per cent, and every eight hours in Australia a woman dies of ovarian cancer. Getting bogged down in those statistics isn’t helpful."

Liv had six rounds of chemotherapy. After two recurrences and two further surgeries, she has a small amount of disease remaining. Extensive scar tissue means further surgery isn’t an option.

The day Liv got her diagnosis was the 'pizza and reading night' at her children's school. Image: Supplied.


The grim reality of ovarian cancer.

There is no early detection test for ovarian cancer. Cervical cancer screenings will not detect it. The only definitive way to diagnose ovarian cancer is biopsy via surgery. Currently, women have to rely on monitoring their own bodies for any changes or symptoms.

"We desperately need an early detection test for ovarian cancer, similar to the habitual, accessible mammogram or cervical screening," Liv says.

Ovarian cancer currently receives less than 0.7 per cent of government medical research funding in Australia.

Comparatively, between 2018 and 2023, prostate cancer research received more than $67.5 million in funding from the Federal Government — that's around 40 per cent more than ovarian cancer research funding. Prostate cancer’s average survival rate of 96 per cent is almost double ovarian cancer’s survivability of just 49 per cent.

"I think because ovarian cancer is relatively rare and can’t be easily detected it has less of a profile than other women’s cancers," says Liv.

"The Pink Ribbon Campaign has done wonders for breast cancer survival rates but because funding for ovarian cancer is so low, it is difficult to raise its profile because every dollar must go into research and not marketing."


Liv wants to help change this through her role as an ambassador for the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation.

"The World Ovarian Cancer Coalition estimated in a recent report that if nothing changes, there will be an 81 per cent increase in ovarian cancer deaths in our region by 2050.

"If you notice various changes in line with the common signs and symptoms or something just doesn’t feel right, visit your doctor and advocate for yourself."

Research is the key to a brighter future for women with ovarian cancer.

Liv has recently taken part in genetic and genomic testing that has resulted in her taking part in a targeted therapy drug trial. Since then, her remaining disease has shrunk and her cancer markers have dropped significantly, remaining stable for 18 months.

"Treatments for ovarian cancer haven’t changed in 30 years — since before mobile phones and Google," Liv says. "Technology has come so far in that time but women with ovarian cancer have been left behind. There is no lack of clever people, they are ready to get to their work. It is just the lack of funding holding them back."

Liv believes she is living proof that research is the key to saving lives.

"I’m fighting a war of attrition that I’m slowly winning. I am very hopeful that with more funding and major research breakthroughs just around the corner, my future will be very bright."

Featured Image: Supplied.

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