Tuesday 25 July 2017

'I was told I'd ovarian cancer when my daughter was four days old'

Despite regular smear tests, June Feeney wasn't diagnosed with ovarian cancer until she had her first baby. Now she wants to help others cope with the shock of diagnosis

Support: June Feeney founded ovacare.ie after realising she knew very little about ovarian cancer following her own diagnosis. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Support: June Feeney founded ovacare.ie after realising she knew very little about ovarian cancer following her own diagnosis. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Despite regular smear tests, June Feeney wasn't diagnosed with ovarian cancer until she had her first baby. Now she wants to help others cope with the shock of diagnosis.

This Saturday in Dublin, a group of women and their family members will gather together to share a common theme that runs through each of their lives. They have all received a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

The OvaCare Patient Day will be the eighth such event of its kind and the third to be held in Dublin, however, not only do very few people know of its existence, perhaps more astounding is the fact that a shocking number of people have little knowledge at all about ovarian cancer.

I have to admit that I would have been one of those people up until six years ago, when the words "you have ovarian cancer" were delivered to me in a lonely hospital room in Cork.

As I received the diagnosis, a hundred things were running through my mind, as the doctor dealt out words such as tumour, staging, surgery and chemotherapy.

My four-day-old daughter lay in her cot next to me; pure, innocent and sleeping contently, while I tried to digest the news I was receiving. As I looked at my newborn baby girl, I thought 'Why would God grant me such a beautiful gift and then take me from her so soon?'

Was this really happening to us? I am only 28. Can you actually get cancer in your ovaries? And in your 20s?

Nine months earlier, my husband Michael and I were ecstatic with the discovery that we were expecting our first child. In the first trimester, I suffered quite badly from hyperemesis (severe sickness that lasts all day) but this wasn't a complete surprise as my mother and sister had been through the same thing in their pregnancies.

Thankfully though, in the second trimester, the sickness abated somewhat and I could enjoy the experience of being pregnant. It was a really wonderful time, feeling first movements and kicks, excitedly writing everything down in my pregnancy journal and generally planning for his/her arrival.

As I entered the third trimester though, that's when I began to experience a lot of pain and discomfort. Being my first pregnancy, I wasn't entirely sure what was 'normal' or to be expected, but as pain continued to worsen with each passing week, I was sent for scans and tests.

The results thankfully reassured me that everything was well with the baby. I was told that the abdominal and pelvic pain I was experiencing was due to softening of the pelvis in preparation for delivery.

Three weeks before my due date however, my health continued to deteriorate and I was admitted to hospital once again. This time the tests were more thorough. It was discovered that there was a large mass present, coming from the ovary, and possibly tumorous.

Over the next days, I was monitored in hospital while yet more investigations were carried out. At this point, my excitement in anticipation of our child was turning into fear and at times despair. Michael and my family kept me strong though. It was also at this point that my faith played an important role.

I have always believed that God is involved in the very details of our life and will be with us especially in the tough times. I found comfort in turning to him and saying 'I trust in you' whatever the outcome.

Nine days before my due date, it was decided to deliver my baby by Caesarean section and then remove the ovary and mass. In the delivery theatre, Michael was the first to proudly announce 'it's a girl'.

While he fed our daughter her first bottle, the surgeons continued the operation on me and it was some time afterwards before I could hold her for the first time. But when that time came, it was as if my whole life had been leading up to that moment. I felt like I already knew her.

As I held her in my arms, I promised I would cherish every second I had with her. While I did not know what the next days, weeks or months would hold, I was determined to make every moment count. We named her Niamh.

It was four days later before I received the results of the biopsies taken during the surgery. The tumour was ovarian cancer. I had never even heard of ovarian cancer before. I had gone for regular cervical smear tests and was very aware of breast cancer.

The fact that there is no screening test available for ovarian cancer and that the smear test does not detect it was news to me.

When Niamh was nine-days-old, after three long weeks in hospital, we were both discharged on her actual due date, which was also my 29th birthday.

I left hospital delighted to be brining Niamh home for the first time, but knowing also that I would be back in the same hospital a week later to meet with oncology and discuss my treatment plan and what lay ahead.

As the surgery I underwent was a major procedure, I would need six weeks to recover before starting a regime of intensive chemotherapy. I managed to negotiate with my kind oncologist to start treatment eight weeks later instead, as I was determined not to be ill for Niamh's christening. Her christening was a wonderful day and that week I commenced my first round of treatment.

I have to say that those months that followed were not easy. Of course, there were also many moments of joy and excitement watching Niamh grow and discover the world around her - without her I don't know how we would have gotten through it. But it was tough taking care of a new baby while undergoing chemotherapy.

I always thought losing my hair would have been the toughest part. However, after the initial shock of seeing my bald reflection in the mirror for the first time, it didn't faze me after that.

It was a stage in the journey to recovery. I used to joke with my family that I was in a race with Niamh to see whose hair would grow the quickest - we both had bald heads now!

There are no words to describe the strength and support of our family and friends during that time and in the following years, from my initial treatment to subsequent surgeries. To me they simply personified love in action.

Michael and I never once had to ask for help, they just seemed to know what we needed before we even knew ourselves. I have no doubt that their love and prayers is what carried us through that time.

Niamh is now six-years-old and in First Class in school. She has no memory of the years when I was ill - and that's something I'm very thankful for. One day I will tell her, when she's old enough to understand, how she saved my life.

The doctors tell me that if not for being pregnant with her, the cancer would have gone undetected for a lot longer and the outcome may have been much different. Niamh loves a good story so I know she'll be delighted to hear this one someday.

Following my initial diagnosis, I wanted to meet or speak with other women with ovarian cancer.

I had so many questions that only someone who'd gone through a similar experience could answer. Unfortunately, there was no such support available at the time in Ireland.

I met Rachel Ireland in 2010, who due to sadly losing her mother to the disease, was also keen to set up a support network and raise much-needed awareness. With the help of some close family members and friends, OvaCare was established in mid-2011.

OvaCare's aim is to improve the diagnosis and education of ovarian cancer within Ireland, through sharing global research and best practice, while providing support and advocacy through a dedicated support network.

One of our core activities is hosting Patient Daysand coffee mornings throughout the country where women can gain support from each other. The Patient Days, in particular, are a great opportunity to hear from leading clinicians, researchers and therapists who specialise in ovarian cancer.

Like myself at the time of diagnosis, most women know very little about the disease so it can be very frightening to hear that you have it. It need not be. You are not alone.

If you or someone you love has ovarian cancer, I wish to invite you to come to an OvaCare event such as the next Patient Day at the Aishling Hotel in Dublin on November 7. You will receive a very warm welcome.

The event is free - all we ask is that you register in advance at ovacare.ie.

What is ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer is a disease in which malignant or cancerous cells are found in the ovaries. An ovary is one of two small, almond-shaped organs located on each side of the uterus that store eggs or germ cells and produce female hormones estrogen and progesterone.

What are the signs and symptoms

Potential symptoms of ovarian cancer include:

Bloated feeling

Persistent swollen abdomen

Trapped wind

Pain or dragging sensation in your lower abdomen or side

Vague indigestion or nausea

Poor appetite and feeling full quickly

Changes in your bowel or bladder habits. For example, constipation or needing to pass water urgently

Abnormal vaginal discharge or bleeding (rare)

How is it treated/prevented?

Treatment will depend on the individual circumstances, but will possibly include surgery and chemotherapy. Targeted therapies and radiotherapy may be used also.

At present, there is no known method to prevent ovarian cancer, but some things appear to reduce a woman's risk of developing the disease. There is no screening test reliable enough to use to pick up ovarian cancer at an early stage so knowledge of family history and awareness of symptoms are key.

Preventive surgery to remove the ovaries and fallopian tubes (prophylactic salpingo-oophorectomy) may be considered if genetic testing or a strong family history indicates an increased risk of ovarian cancer.

Irish Independent

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