Sunday 25 January 2015

The sinister disease that's killing women

With so much focus on breast cancer, the ovarian disease can often be overlooked, with tragic consequences, writes Arlene Harris

Anne Murphy at home in Tulla, Co Clare, who is in remission from ovarian cancer but who tragically lost her sister to the disease last Christmas
Anne Murphy at home in Tulla, Co Clare, who is in remission from ovarian cancer but who tragically lost her sister to the disease last Christmas
Pierce Brosnan and his daughter Charlotte, who died earlier this month after battling ovarian cancer

HOLLYWOOD actor Pierce Brosnan is mourning his daughter Charlotte, who died last week after a lengthy battle with ovarian cancer. Aged just 42, the mother of two spent the past three years fighting the same disease that also killed her mother Cassandra 22 years ago – she was just 43 when she died.

Because of his high-profile image, Irish-born Brosnan has put the spotlight on this ravaging disease, which affects 350 women in Ireland every year but often goes under the radar because the symptoms can be mistaken for something else until it is too late for life-saving treatment.

In 2010, Anne Murphy, from Tulla, Co Clare, was diagnosed with fallopian tube cancer (which is where genetic ovarian cancers start) and after surgery and treatment is thankfully in remission.

Her sister Grainne was also diagnosed in the same year but because it was not identified as the cause of her illness at an early stage, the mother of one died on Christmas night 2012.

Anne, who has two children and works as an oncology nurse, wants to highlight the importance of identifying the symptoms of ovarian cancer early and highlight the prevalence of inherited risk and the link between cancer of the ovaries and the breast.

"My mother died from breast cancer when she was 43, her cousin died of it when she was 39 and my grandmother when she was 53," says Anne.

"Both Grainne and I had always been aware of our risk of developing breast cancer and the likelihood of us having the BRCA gene (as Michelle Heaton and Angelina Jolie were diagnosed with this year).

"We were both attending breast clinics annually for mammograms, but no referral was ever made for either of us for ovarian screening.

"Now we know that although women with the BRCA gene have an 80-90pc chance of developing breast cancer, they also have a 40-60pc chance of developing ovarian cancer. But while the whole world is supporting the need for breast cancer awareness, very little is made of the ovarian strain of the disease."

So much so that when Anne's sister Grainne began to suffer from pelvic pain and unexplained discharge after the birth of her first child in 2009, no one made the connection to an ovarian problem – despite the fact that her family history put her in a high-risk category.

"A few months after Grainne had her first baby (she was 37 at the time), she was suffering from bloating, pains in her pelvis and vaginal discharge," says Anne.

"She was told that this was normal for a woman after giving birth and she could expect these kinds of symptoms for at least a year after delivery.

"At first it was thought that this was a normal reaction to having just given birth but the problems continued and she was tested for a urinary tract infection some months later. This was clear but the following year the symptoms worsened and she went for a full Well Woman check. These results again did not indicate cancer and she was referred to a gastroenterologist to screen for bowel problems.

"It was a gastroenterologist who referred Grainne for an ultrasound scan as he believed her symptoms were not connected to the bowel.

But Grainne was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and although shocked and devastated at the turn of events, Anne was taking no chances and asked for a blood test to further rule out any chance of her having the same disease.

"When Grainne's results came back, I was utterly heartbroken for her," she admits.

"She had wanted to find out what was wrong for so long, and she knew the family history could have been an issue.

Irish Independent

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