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"I don't know how long I've got left", says woman whose tummy troubles turned out to be ovarian cancer

Mirror logo Mirror 14/03/2017 Emma Pietras

© Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc During Ovarian Cancer Awareness month, sufferer Rebecca Readshaw urges women not to ignore the symptoms of the fifth biggest female cancer, which is likely to claim her life...

It had been a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but it seemed Rebecca Readshaw had picked up an unwanted souvenir after spending six months in India.

While there, like most Western travellers, she had been plagued by tummy troubles and once back in the UK, it showed no sign of disappearing.

Her GP diagnosed Rebecca, 35, with Giardia, a parasitic infection in her digestive system, and put her on a course of strong antibiotics.

It helped to ease the symptoms but when she started getting a sharp pain in her stomach, she returned to her doctor.

She recalls: “He told me that as I already had IBS and my intestines had had a bit of a battering from the parasite, I probably would be quite sore.”

But now Rebecca, from West London, knows the changes in her bowel habits and stomach pain were symptoms of ovarian cancer.

Professor Sean Kehoe, chief medical adviser for the charity Ovacome, says it is very common for women to mistake their symptoms.

© Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc He says: “It’s a challenge for family doctors to pick up that the symptoms could signal ovarian cancer, and they will want to rule out less sinister possibilities first.”

March is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month and to mark it, Ovacome is launching a social media campaign called Because You Are Special To Me, asking people to tag a person they love and tell them the symptoms of ovarian cancer.

More than 7,200 women are diagnosed every year in the UK with ovarian cancer – the 5th most common cancer in women – but they have a 90% chance of surviving more than five years when it’s caught early.

However, it’s too late for Rebecca. It was February 2012 when the camera operator for the BBC first went to her GP. By the end of the year she was suffering so badly from constipation she wasn’t able to work.

“It was so painful,” she says. “I started taking natural laxatives, which helped a little bit. The pain became more intense and when I did go, there was blood.”

© Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc In the October, her GP referred her to a specialist at London’s Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, but due to an administrative error she wasn’t seen until March 2013. 

“By this point I had a little lump appearing on the left side of my stomach and I could feel it was where I was getting the pain, which I told the consultant,” she says.

He sent her for a colonoscopy and an MRI scan, followed by a CT scan.

The following month, she went back for her results and was told she had ovarian cancer.

Rebecca says: “I sat there blinking in shock. The nurse said, ‘You’ve got a lump on your left ovary and it’s blocking your bowel, that’s why you’ve got so much pain’.

“I was also told I wouldn’t be able to have children.”

Rebecca immediately phoned her then boyfriend, Ming Yeung, 36, and told him to meet her at home as soon as possible. “I didn’t want to tell him over the phone,” she says.

© Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc She was referred to the Royal Marsden Hospital, where doctors diagnosed her with stage three ovarian cancer and found her tumour measured more than 9cm. In July 2013, she started the first of six cycles of chemo.

The treatment failed to shrink her tumour and that month she had surgery to remove it along with her ovaries and womb – a full hysterectomy. Before the operation, Rebecca had been warned by surgeons she may need a temporary colostomy bag because the tumour was attached to her bowel.

She says: “That was my biggest fear. I’m really squeamish so the idea of this coming out of my tummy really freaked me out. It sounds superficial but it was also about how attractive I’d feel with it.”

Sadly, her fears were realised.

“I remember waking up in ICU and Ming was there,” Rebecca says. “He said he had bad news. The colostomy bag wasn’t temporary as they’d had to take a lot more of my bowel out. I remember being heartbroken.”

Credits: BEN PRUCHNIE © Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc Credits: BEN PRUCHNIE As Rebecca, who married Ming in April 2015, came to terms with the fact she would never have children, her body immediately went into the menopause.

She had a further three cycles of chemotherapy and, in October 2013, was told her cancer was in remission.

But just before Christmas, she got the news the cancer was now stage four as it had spread to her lung, liver, lymph nodes and pelvis. Doctors continued to monitor her with regular scans and, in October 2016, she was accepted on to a clinical trial at the Royal Marsden Hospital.

Rebecca, who started the trial in January this year, says: “It works by turning off the growth signal in cancer cells. I’ve researched it and women in America have got on really well with it.

“I know it won’t cure me and I do think about death. I’ve asked how long I could live, but doctors can’t tell me. I try not to think about the future too much and just focus on each milestone, like getting married.”

With no national screening programme for ovarian cancer in place, she knows vigilance is crucial.

“Before I was diagnosed, I didn’t really know about cancer at all. I was really naïve,” says Rebecca.

“Now I understand more about ovarian cancer. I know there is a non-intrusive blood test my GP could have done to rule out anything sinister. If any women reading this have persistent symptoms, I urge them to go and see their GP.”

Ovarian cancer symptoms

■ Bloating that doesn’t come and go

■ Feeling full quickly or loss of appetite

■ Pelvic or stomach pain

■ Needing to pee urgently or more frequently than normal

■ Changes in bowel habit

■ Extreme fatigue

■ Unexplained weight loss

Can you get tested for it?

If you have ovarian cancer symptoms, according to the NICE guidelines, your GP should offer you a blood test for CA125, a protein found in the blood and when its levels rise it can be an indicator of ovarian cancer. Women should get retested after six weeks.

A reading under 35 is considered normal for healthy women, although this only applies to 95% of the population. For some the normal level is around 50. And in some cases women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer will have had a normal reading. Private tests are available for £50 plus.

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