Putting a spotlight on age inequality: Elizabeth's story

26 March 2021
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Our new spotlight report revealed that women over 70 often don't receive the standard of care they deserve. Debra shares her mum’s story to highlight the inequalities some women may face when diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and why the work we are doing to establish best practice in offering treatment to these patients is so important.

Our lives changed forever when my mum Elizabeth was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer. She was fit and healthy at 75. It all started when I returned from a three month stay in Australia and could see straightaway that Mum wasn’t her usual self. 

She always had tons of energy, ran a busy home with my stepdad John, spent time with my brother Ed and his family, and walked the dog three times a day. She loved gardening, going to the gym, and just had a zest for life that I truly envied.  

Mum had surgery over 30 years before for an overactive thyroid and since then had always carefully watched her diet, so it was concerning when she began to put weight on for no reason, was fatigued and had little appetite

She’d seen her GP who had told her there was nothing to worry about; she was just getting old. But we knew something wasn’t right and I made her go again, this time I went with her for support. Again we explained Mum’s symptoms and he was equally as dismissive, this time telling us ‘you ladies always say you watch your diet but sneak off and eat cakes’. He didn’t even examine Mum. If he had he would have seen how bloated she was. Her tummy was as taut as a drum. 

Eventually after my insistence, Mum was sent to hospital for tests and told to call the surgery for results. When she did, she was told nothing was wrong by the receptionist and given an appointment for two weeks later. This time she saw a different GP who took one look at her results and told her she needed to go back to hospital at once. In the four weeks from tests to GP appointment her breathing had become much worse. When she reached hospital they drained eight litres of fluid from her lungs and was told she had Stage 4 ovarian cancer. 

She was told the only course of treatment open to her was chemo. We asked about surgery and was told her cancer was ‘fragmented’. She couldn’t have surgery and was given a prognosis of two to five years. The treatment was aggressive and painful. Watching her go through it was traumatic for us all. Our days were consumed with finding anything that might help and time after time we went back with mum to see her consultant asking about various new treatments we’d researched only to emphatically be told no on every occasion without adequate explanation. The door was closed at every point and I truly believe that Mum’s age was a defining factor. Of course realistically she and we, knew her cancer was terminal but we just wanted to give her all the time she deserved to enjoy her life to the full. 

"For us it wasn’t about liability, it was about education, it was about listening"

Debra

On 24 August 2011, Mum died, just 10 months after diagnosis. She was failed by a system that all too often dismisses older women on so many levels. Following her death we met with the GP surgery who assured us they were reviewing their procedures although of course would not admit any liability. For us it wasn’t about liability, it was about education, it was about listening. It was about respect. I wrote to her GP asking him to think of my Mum every day, in the hope that the next time a woman experiences the symptoms of ovarian cancer: bloating, fatigue, a swollen tummy, poor appetite, that they are not dismissed them on grounds of age. 

Over 7,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year, with more than a third over the age of 70. Yet, in the first of a series of reports highlighting inequalities in ovarian cancer, we found women over 70 often do not receive the standard of care necessary to survive ovarian cancer.  

To address the inequality that women with ovarian cancer face, from diagnosis to surgery and treatment, we will partner expert organisations across the UK, and use evidence to award targeted funding to share best-practise, improving survival rates for all women regardless of where she lives, her age or ethnicity. 

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