Karen Patterson, a civil servant, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1997. Not only did she have a serious illness, but sadly it led to a hysterectomy just as she’d been hoping to start a family. With help from Ulster Cancer Foundation (UCF) counsellors, Karen bravely battled her cancer and today – 14 years later - is counting her many blessings.
Ovarian cancer kills around 120 women in Northern Ireland every year. The signs can include extreme tiredness, back pain and feeling bloated, but because the symptoms are often confused with non-life threatening conditions, diagnosis can come too late.
Karen discovered she had tumours while she and her husband were undergoing IVF treatment to help them have a baby. “While that was going on I didn’t have any obvious symptoms of ovarian cancer, which can be difficult to diagnose anyway,” Karen said.
“We’d had various checks and scans and while we had ‘unexplained infertility’, there were indications that something was wrong. I’d had some abnormal bleeding, which was upsetting because I didn’t know why it was happening, but the whole focus for us at the time was the IVF,” she said.
“I was very fortunate that my consultant had taken some fluid samples when my eggs were extracted. He was curious about why I wasn’t conceiving and decided to run some tests. That saved my life.
“When the results came back they showed there were malignant cells. I was admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital for an operation which uncovered a tumour on an ovary and in the womb. I was in my thirties at the time. In the month when we were expecting to be pregnant I was in hospital having a hysterectomy, followed by six sessions of chemotherapy, one every 3 weeks.
“I was extremely lucky that the tumours were detected but I can’t express what a huge disappointment it was to know we wouldn’t be able to have a baby. We went through every emotion imaginable – you try to be brave but deep down it was a very frightening and devastating time, not just for me, but for all my family and close friends,” she admitted.
“This had come completely out of the blue. I felt I needed someone professional to talk to. I phoned the Ulster Cancer Foundation helpline and spoke to a counsellor who invited me to UCF and spent an hour and a half with me.
“The UCF counselling service is brilliant. I knew absolutely nothing about ovarian cancer and she was able to reassure me. I had been completely in the dark but she gave me information and had the time to answer some important questions for me.
“I also spoke to two other UCF counsellors at the Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital - it was such a relief to be able to speak openly – with family and friends you are always afraid you’re going to upset them. They helped calm, reassure and console me and were real pillars of strength. It also meant that there was a continuity of care each time I returned to the hospital for treatment.”
Karen continued: “While in hospital for chemotherapy, I joined a Support Group for cancer patients, organised by UCF. Initially, I joined to gain access to information about my type of cancer and to meet other patients who were undergoing chemotherapy. I discovered that talking to other patients provided me with a great deal of strength and helped me in many simple ways, by sharing our experiences. We shared common feelings and pain, particularly while initially trying to cope with a diagnosis of cancer. Little did I know at the time that some of these patients would become life-long friends.
“The Support Group met regularly in hospital and continued to meet every month when treatments finished. We talked together, shared information, enjoyed therapeutic sessions of relaxation, art, music, craftwork and cuisine.
“UCF do marvellous work caring for cancer patients, in cancer prevention and funding research. One of their aims is to highlight the symptoms and signs of all types of cancer as early diagnosis is so important. If you have vague symptoms it is better to get them checked out rather than do nothing and get that reassurance from your doctor. One thing I have learned is to trust your own instincts – you know what is normal for your body. If you feel that something isn’t right have the confidence to say to your doctor that you want further tests,” she urged.
Karen’s story doesn’t end there though. Before her operation, the couple had been in contact with social services to enquire about adoption, but had been turned down because they were undergoing IVF. After the devastating realisation they wouldn’t be able to have their own baby, they asked again – heartbreakingly Karen was told ‘no’ because of her diagnosis.
But happily all has turned out well. Fortunately for the Pattersons, their local health board changed its policy and they were eventually allowed to adopt two little boys after Karen got her five-year cancer all-clear.
“I have been very lucky. If I hadn’t been having IVF the cancer might not have been picked up until it was too late,” Karen added.
“Though we went through a terrible time, my sister always says there was a reason for it – our boys were supposed to have a mum and dad and that mum and dad was meant to be us.”
Liz Atkinson, Head of Care Services, UCF, said, “Research tells us that even in the early stages, most women do experience some persistent symptoms.
Swelling in the abdomen
Vague indigestion, nausea and a bloated feeling
Unexplained weight gain
Pain in the lower abdomen
Changes in bowel or bladder habits, such as constipation, diarrhoea or needing to pass urine more often
Loss of appetite
Abnormal vaginal bleeding, although this is rare
“UCF would encourage women to visit their local GP to get checked out as soon as possible, if any of these symptoms persist. It is important to note that many of these problems, particularly if it is one symptom in isolation, could point to something else and not necessarily to ovarian cancer.”
If you would like more information about UCF’s care services, support groups or just to talk to someone about cancer please contact UCF’s confidential freephone helpline on 0800 783 33 39.