Always determined to make the best of any situation, Debbie hopes that by sharing her ovarian cancer journey, from diagnosis through to treatment and surgery, will not only help other women in similar situations but also raise awareness of the symptoms.
“My motto is to always take a negative and make it into a positive. I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I do know that I’m going to live my life to the full and enjoy every minute.
I was 46 years old when I went my GP with bowel-related symptoms; I was needing to go to the toilet around three times a day. I’d had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when I was 28 and 32 years old, so I was always worried if I noticed any unusual changes in my body. My GP did a CA125 blood test and referred me to a gynaecologist. After a few days, my GP rang me at work to tell me that my CA125 level was 127 (a normal value is below 35). She was worried that it could be advanced ovarian cancer. As you can imagine, I was truly shocked and devastated.
I’m lucky enough to have health insurance so I pushed to have a scan and an ultrasound within a week. Strangely, nothing showed up on either scan. I also had a full body MRI scan which again revealed nothing. Based on the higher levels of CA125, I saw a colorectal consultant for a colonoscopy. It was only at this point that an obstruction in the bowel was found. At the time, the consultant thought it looked like scar tissue from when I’d received radiotherapy for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Surgery was planned to remove the blockage.
Unfortunately, after surgery the consultant told us that he’d found tumours in my bowel, appendix and peritoneum. He’d had to perform surgery which included a permanent stoma and appendectomy. He also mentioned that there were small spots/tumours within the peritoneal that he hadn’t been able to remove at the time. The pathology report came through with a diagnosis of stage 3c serous adenocarcinoma, which derived from ovarian cancer.
My family and I were so shocked as we originally thought it to be just scar tissue, but I’m a positive person and I soon came around to thinking ‘OK I’ve got cancer again, let’s deal with it and get treatment as soon as possible’. It was harder for my husband and close family – I think it always is. If you’re the one going through cancer you have to deal with it and stay strong, but for those close to you it must be very hard. I’m very lucky to have a fantastic family and a great network of friends. There was never a day that went by without someone visiting me, phoning for a chat or sending me a text or email.
"It was harder for my husband and close family – I think it always is"Debbie Sharp
I must say that having a stoma was a little strange at first. I named my stoma ‘Bart’ and my husband and I had so many laughs, which helped take my mind off my diagnosis. In terms of losing my hair, well, I’d lost my hair twice before so I knew what to expect; it didn’t bother me at all. Losing my hair is part of the treatment and at least it didn’t take me ages to get ready in the morning!
I was offered advice through the hospital and counselling through my workplace, but I dealt with it together with my family and friends. I just felt that I had to fight this disease – be strong, positive and enjoy every day. On treatment days, I would enjoy chatting with the nurses and think about how the chemo was killing the cancer. I had down days, everyone does, but my ‘good’ days far outweighed the ‘bad’.
Even so, I found the wait time from my first surgery to the start of chemo frustrating. I know I needed to wait around six weeks after surgery before I could start treatment, but I had changed hospitals and I was constantly chasing. It felt like ages before I started treatment. In the meantime, I had ascites which had to be drained twice. Before chemo my CA125 shot up from 127 to 1245, so I was anxious to start treatment as soon as possible.
I nearly didn’t go to the GP. I hate to think how much worse my diagnosis could have been if I’d ignored the symptoms. How many people are out there with similar symptoms to mine thinking ‘I’m ok, it’s just a stomach upset’? Ovarian cancer is so hard to diagnose in the early stages. No matter how mild the symptoms are, it’s always better to get checked out.
Back in January I was in a position where all cancer had been cleared through chemo and surgery. I was feeling well, started back at work and my hair grew into a lovely new cropped style. Unfortunately my CA125 level starting rising again and I am now back on chemotherapy. I am more determined than ever to pass this next hurdle, be strong, brave and positive. Before I was diagnosed with Lymphoma in 1998, my husband and I enjoyed rock climbing and mountaineering; we climbed Kilimanjaro and trekked across the Alps. The last seven years we’ve been renovating a barn, and we enjoy seeing all our hard work pay off as we finish another part of our dream home. Life is so precious and I’m certainly not going to spend it looking backwards. Onwards and upwards, here I come!"