Receiving a cancer diagnosis is something 396 Australians experience every day. After hearing such potentially life-changing news, one of the first things many patients want to understand is the prognosis and survival rate.

For ovarian cancer – a disease for which there is no early detection test – these statistics can be stark reading. 1,500 women will be diagnosed in Australia every year, and 1,000 will die of the disease. The 5-year survival rate is 46%.

However, behind every number is a person, an individual coping with the diagnosis and what it means for their everyday lives. If you take the time to look beyond the headline stats, you’ll quickly find many incredible stories of survival, resilience, bravery and hope.

Ekas’s panel manager, Jessica Farrow, sat down with three such survivors and found three very different experiences all united by one common trait: the ability to see beyond their diagnosis and approach their treatment with overwhelming positivity and strength.

Melissa’s story 

‘Have faith. Keep moving forward’

Melissa*, is just 29 years of age and in the early stages of treatment after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer earlier this year. She is a strong, independent, woman whose family is overseas. She has faced the diagnosis head on and shares her story here. 

Melissa is not alone when she describes ovarian cancer as “the silent killer”. It’s a phrase used often, both by the patients who shared their stories with us and the organisations set up to raise awareness of the disease.

“There are no clear symptoms,” she explains. It was lower back pain that prompted a visit to her GP earlier this year – a visit that was to become the catalyst for several intense weeks of scans, surgery and, eventually, a cancer diagnosis.

“They found a 15cm cyst,” she recalls. “I waited about a month, then cyst grew to 20cm. Within a month it grew 5cm.”

After having the cyst removed in February, Melissa received the devastating news doctors had found cancer cells. She was given the option to wait and have an ultrasound at a later date to check for abnormalities, or to have the ovary removed. She chose the latter.

Processing the diagnosis

Melissa describes the “end of the world” feeling when she found out about her diagnosis: “When I first found out it was cancer I cried alone. I asked why it had happened to me. Then I processed everything and felt ‘what’s the point of crying?’ It didn’t solve the problem anyway.”

After the initial shock of the diagnosis, she says she was able to gather her thoughts and “became strong” for herself. In the days and weeks that followed she did her own research almost every day, but the emotional, physical, and mental toll meant she lost sleep and struggled to concentrate on work and daily life.

Finding comfort and support

One huge source of support Melissa turned to during her research was Ovarian Cancer Australia. “They were very helpful,” she recalls. “I would recommend anyone with cancer or an ovarian cyst to get in touch with them”.

Because they live overseas and are unable to visit due to COVID restrictions, Melissa has chosen not to tell her family yet. She fears they would worry too much, and she says she would prefer to tell them face to face when they next see each other in person. It’s a selfless decision, and one that she hasn’t taken lightly.

Despite having no immediate family in Australia, Melissa has taken strength in her close network of friends and her partner, who has stood firmly by her side throughout every step of her diagnosis and treatment.

She explains: “He’s very supportive. He says, ‘whatever you’re dealing with, we’ll get through it together.’”

Plans for the future

The future for Melissa is one of hope. “I would like to have a family of my own,” she says. “I would like to have two children”. While the surgery to remove one ovary will affect Melissa’s fertility as it will be harder for her to fall pregnant, there is still a chance – one which Melissa is keen to take.

When asked what advice she has for others who might be facing a similar diagnosis, she is full of only positive words. “You’re not alone. Have faith,” she reassures.

She says her personal inspiration comes from her grandfather, who has had his own experience with liver cancer and is now in his 90s.

“He’s been to hospital and the cancer is gone. He is very optimistic. Mindset is very important. Think positive and you can attract positive”.

Sarah’s story

‘Make the absolute best of every moment you can’

Sarah* was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2005 at the age of 48 while her children were still at school. She went through surgery to remove her ovaries as well as four rounds of chemotherapy. She is now cancer-free.

Sarah initially put the symptoms she was experiencing down to approaching menopause. She was experiencing frequent urination and had previously had a period that lasted 23 days. But when she felt “a solid, concrete lump” in her stomach area, she visited her GP, who immediately sent her for an ultrasound.

In Sarah’s case, her medical team moved fast. She had two tumours – one was 8cm and one was 12cm – so receiving urgent treatment was crucial.

“I went from diagnosis to treatment within a week,” she recalls. “I got sent for an immediate ultrasound. The next morning I was in the office of the gynaecological oncologist.”

‘History repeating itself’

Sarah says no one even said the word cancer to her until she was booked in for a hysterectomy. The rapid developments in her cancer journey meant she had little time to process her diagnosis, let alone think about what it would mean for her family.

I felt shock,” she recalls “And also in my particular case my own mother passed away when I was 15 and my brother and sister were 13 and 11. My own kids were 14, 12 and 10 and I thought, ‘that’s history repeating itself.’ It was quite confronting.”

Sarah’s husband, whom she describes as “my rock”, took the lead in telling friends and family as she found it too difficult in the early stages to explain what was going on to people.

Surgery, treatment and beyond

Sarah’s treatment team were very clear about her treatment pathway from the start. She was booked in for surgery with a week of her diagnosis, and was told she would have to have chemotherapy.

This news didn’t faze Sarah. She took it in her stride and was determined to do whatever it took to give her the best chance of fighting her cancer.

She admits the chemo was tough on her body, despite her resilience and previous good health. She endured four rounds over the course of around 3-4 months. The final treatment was delayed because tests showed her body wasn’t “in a fit state” to have the treatment. But she stayed the course and bounced back once the chemo was over.

“I tried to be as positive as possible and focus on what I was going through at the time,” she says. “I was just grateful that they got it and the surgery went well.”

Life now, 15 years on

While Sarah says she has struggled with the “sheer terror” of her cancer returning, she is able to reflect on her experience and use her knowledge of the symptoms to educate her own daughters in understanding their cancer risk.

“In hindsight I did think I had bloating in my stomach at least a year earlier. Possibly if I’d gone to my GP at that point things might have been tackled a bit earlier,” she recalls.

 “People’s best defence is to know [their] body. That’s what I’ve told my daughters. If you know your body you’ll know when something’s not quite right and take action that bit sooner.”

And what would Sarah’s advice be to anyone else who has been recently diagnosed?

“Take it one day at a time,” she says. “Make the absolute best of every moment you can.”

Elizabeth’s story

‘I always thought I’d be all right. It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be.’

Elizabeth*, now 62, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2004 at the age of 45. She underwent two surgeries within six months of each other. Her cancer is now in remission and she is focusing on enjoying time with her children and grandchildren.

As an EN nurse at a hospital, Elizabeth was very familiar with medical procedures and caring for others. Yet she believes the 18 months of night shifts she worked prior to her cancer diagnosis “had something to do with” her disease developing.

“It was straight after that I got sick,” she remembers. “It throws your body out when you’re working nights. 

“I woke up one day and I thought, ‘I can’t do this any more, I don’t feel well.’ My kids were about 16, 18 and 20 at the time.”

The early symptoms

Elizabeth says she has always been very body aware – eating healthily, watching her weight and playing a lot of sport to stay fit and active. So when she experienced bloating and pain on the right side of her stomach, she “knew instinctively there was something not quite right”.

Her GP could feel a growth during a physical examination so they sent her for further tests, which revealed a growth the size of a tennis ball.

The initial surgery

Elizabeth’s first reaction was wanting to take ownership of her future health. She wanted both ovaries and her uterus removed, but she says her doctors advised against it.

“Doctors are reluctant to take out healthy organs,” she explains. “They said, ‘no, there’s nothing wrong with your uterus or your other ovary.’”

She remembers asking them to check her second ovary during the initial surgery, just to put her mind at rest, but they couldn’t detect any abnormalities. However, despite making a quick recovery and being back at work after two weeks, Elizabeth’s cancer journey was far from over.

The cancer recurrence

Just six months later, Elizabeth was shocked when she began experiencing the same symptoms – this time on her left side.

“I went back and there was another one the size of a cricket ball on the other side,” she says.

“The surgeon said, ‘I can’t believe that has grown to that size in that time.’ He said there was nothing there when they checked. I wish they had taken it all out in the first place and they’d listened to me.”

Although Eizabeth was a busy mum of three older children at the time of her diagnosis, she chose not to tell them what was happening, apart from: “I’m going in for an operation”.

“I tried to act normal around the kids,” she recalls. “It sounds weird but we just got on with it – we didn’t collapse around and cry. I always thought I’d be all right. It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be.”

Life after surgery

Elizabeth didn’t have to have chemotherapy, although she explains the “instant” menopausal symptoms after having both ovaries removed really took their toll on her body and her quality of life. Luckily, she found a doctor who treated her with HRT patches, which offered a great deal of relief and made her feel “normal” again.

And now, almost two decades later and with her cancer in remission, Elizabeth refuses to live in the shadow of the disease.

“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it,” she says. “It’s just a hiccup to me. That’s how I approached it. I’m not one to cry my eyes out and think, ‘why me?’  

Her determination and stoicism are evident in her parting words of advice for anyone else being treated for ovarian cancer: “All I’d say is never give up. I’ve had it twice and I’m still standing. I’m 62. And 17 years later I’m still here. You can do it!”

*All names have been changed to preserve the anonymity of the interviewees.

Ekas spoke to three members on it’s panel Apple A Day Research in April 2021.

Ekas Research
Ekas Research