GP Serena Whelan was devastated when cancer put an end to her hopes of having a biological child, but counts herself lucky that her wish to become a mother meant her diagnosis came in time for her to be treated successfully. She talks about the importance of visiting your doctor, having the BRCA gene and her hopes for a family through adoption
Like many newlyweds, when Serena Whelan got married, she and her husband Fergus dreamed of having a family. But a year later, they were no closer to becoming parents and decided to visit a fertility clinic. This decision proved to be a double-edged sword as they discovered that she would not become pregnant and, even more shockingly, actually had ovarian cancer and would need treatment and surgery as a matter of urgency.
May 8 is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Day and the 38-year-old is keen to share her story so others realise the importance of seeking advice if they have any medical concerns whatsoever, as this disease is often dubbed a ‘silent killer’ due to its vague symptoms.
“I was just 34 when I was diagnosed with metastatic ovarian cancer,” says Serena, who works as a doctor at NUI Galway. “Fergus and I had been married for over a year and were trying for a baby, but nothing was happening, so we attended a fertility clinic. I had no symptoms whatsoever but in March 2017, the specialist did an ultrasound which showed the possibility of an ovarian cyst, so he arranged for a laparoscopy two weeks later to have a closer look. Afterwards, he told us that I had ovarian cancer.”
Serena, who is originally from Clare, says they were both devastated by the news, and particularly being a doctor herself, knew that she would have a very hard road ahead of her. “It was an incredible shock and the bottom fell out of our world completely,” she admits. “We had desperately wanted children and now I had multiple diagnoses coming at me at the one time — including infertility, the possibility of dying and the onset of the menopause (which would be triggered by surgery). I was feeling each issue at full force.
“And although being a doctor was helpful as I understood what would be going on, the downside was that I nearly knew too much. When I was first told about the cancer, my initial thought was that the survival statistics are dismal. I was trying to be positive for Fergus, but in my head, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to beat it and was very scared that I would die.”
However, despite her fears, the GP was determined to be positive and try to have some control over what was happening to her. “After I processed the shock, I remember asking the doctor if firstly, I could still let our two dogs (Betty and Pixie) into bed with us and secondly if I would lose my hair. The answer to both questions was yes,” she says.
“So I said that I would like to shave my head before the hair started falling out and we decided to host a party where I would do it and try to raise some money for the voluntary support group, Cancer Care West. Fergus, my sister-in-law Avril, and my father-in-law Liam all shaved their heads too which was an amazing gesture of love and certainly helped me to cope with the bald head.
“We had all of our family, including nieces and nephews and our friends and their children there too and they helped with the shaving. This was great as by including them I didn’t have to contend with awkward stares and the kids weren’t worried about what had happened to my hair. We turned it into a positive occasion and raised almost €9,000 for the charity.”
After having extensive surgery which included a laparotomy, hysterectomy, both ovaries removed, pelvic clearance, bowel resection and omentectomy, Serena then underwent chemotherapy. And six months after she was first diagnosed, the cancer had finally been eradicated and the road to recovery began.
“I finished treatment in November 2017, and although I was physically cancer free, emotionally I was totally drained. I was grieving for babies we could never have and dealing with menopausal symptoms which I was plunged into straight after my surgery. It was a horrific time.
“And I still have some problems relating to the chemo and the surgery. I developed lymphodoema in my legs and go to Cancer Care West every couple of months for manual lymph drainage and I have to wear tight compression garments which are not very pleasant, particularly during the summer months. Another side effect is that I have some peripheral neuropathy in my hands and feet. This is like a numbness and sometimes it feels like pins and needles. The post-chemo fatigue is still there too and some days, my energy is totally zapped. I am running completely on empty, but these are things you just have to put up with and learn to adapt to.
“Overall, I recovered well even though I was out of work for two years and it took every bit of that time to recover. In fact, it is still very much part of my life and I have regular oncology appointments for bloods, reviews and scans.” The cancer diagnosis was a bolt out of the blue for Serena and it was recommended that she have genetic testing to see if she had inherited a gene which may have put her at risk of developing this type of cancer.
“There were no warning signs about my cancer and up to my diagnosis, I really had only a few symptoms, the main one being abdominal pain around my period,” she says. “I was also a bit tired, but I was in a busy job, so I attributed some of this to my work.
“There was no suspicious family history known at the time I was diagnosed, and my surgeon recommended I have BRCA testing done. And results came back to show that I had a BRCA 1 mutation. As a result, all my family were then tested and unfortunately, one of my first cousins, Marian, also tested positive for the gene and died from ovarian cancer while was waiting for her results. This was a very big shock to us all.
“I also had a bilateral mastectomy six months ago because of the increased risk of developing breast cancer (due to testing positive for the BRCA1 gene). But I am doing really well again now, thank God.” Serena has recovered remarkably well from her ordeal and says that, along with the expert ongoing care she has received from the start, the fact that her cancer was detected by chance has undoubtedly saved her life.
“I am under regular surveillance with my oncologist Dr Paul Donnellan and also attend the support services and the gym in Cancer Care West,” she says. “They are all incredible and I can attribute much of my recovery to them. But ovarian cancer can be very difficult to spot initially as symptoms are so vague. We were very lucky that we were trying for a baby and it was picked up on the scan, but others may not notice anything untoward. So I would advise people not to waste time worrying about whether or not they might be wasting a doctor’s time with an issue which may be minor. If they think something is wrong, they should go and get help immediately.
“There is definitely not enough screening for ovarian cancer, and I would encourage women who have any concerns to go with their gut feeling — also, knowing their family history is very important.
“And if someone has been diagnosed, the best advice I could give is to try to stay positive. There is help out there and there is hope. Of course, there will be bad days and on those days, it is important to be kind to yourself and allow yourself to go through the emotions. Don’t be afraid to reach out. And of course if you feel something might be wrong, just ask your doctor, that is what they (we) are here for. There is a lot of help out there, so make sure to avail of it and remember that early detection is key.”
Four years after her devastating cancer and infertility diagnosis, Serena is looking towards the future and says she tries to always focus on the bright side of life. “We have been on a very hard journey and have been through a lot over the past few years,” she says. “But it is amazing what you become grateful for — firstly, that my cancer was spotted when it was, otherwise I might not be here. And recently I was told that my check-ups at the oncology clinic had been reduced from every 12 weeks to six months, so that is something I am very happy about as it is a step in the right direction.
“Both Fergus and I are problem solvers and when we were told that we would not be able to have children of our own, it was a very hard road to go down. But we always take a problem, analyse it and do what we can to fix it. So having talked about the situation, we reasoned that although we had always wanted children of our own, we had also looked at adoption (in tandem) and now we will just do that sooner rather than later as we won’t be having biological children. It is all about mindset and planning something positive for the future.”
For more information on ovarian cancer visit mariekeating.ie and ovariancancerday.org