Four cancer sufferers share why check-ups could save your life

Image: Alisha Thompson (supplied)
Image: Alisha Thompson (supplied) 

Life gets busy and mums more than anyone can sometimes be guilty of ignoring their own health while they care for their families.

But four women who ignored symptoms and went on to suffer the consequences of gynaecological cancers say it's time for women to start prioritising their own health.

Alisha Thomson 

Townsville doctor Alisha Thomson (pictured above) has stage 4 ovarian cancer, diagnosed when she was just 27 years old. Suffering from abdominal pain, Alisha waited about a month before heading for her GP.

"The pain was initially infrequent, and I ignored it as I was busy at work and thought I didn't have time for a GP appointment," she said. "I wish I had listened more to my body and not ignored the pain which continued to change."

After seeing her GP, it still took another four months for Alisha to be diagnosed with cancer, and another month before she knew it was ovarian cancer. During that time, Alisha experienced nausea, lack of appetite and rapid weight loss, and she says her pride interfered with her diagnosis.

"I didn't accept how severe the pain was and didn't want anyone to think I was weak," she said. "I rarely told anyone and I didn't emphasise the severity to the GP."

Alisha says it's a mistake she doesn't want other women to make.

"I urge everyone to listen to your body, go and see a GP if you have concerns and be honest with the GP and yourself. As much as we think it won't work and social commitments will wait but cancer doesn't care if you're busy, it doesn't discriminate."

Karen Wilson 

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Canberra mum of two Karen Wilson says her early symptoms were irregular periods, but because she was still breastfeeding her son, her doctor didn't initially think much of it. An ultrasound showed a slightly enlarged ovary but Karen admits she didn't follow up with a referral.

When she started bleeding heavily for extended periods, Karen's doctor suggested another ultrasound. It was then it was discovered that Karen's ovary was much more enlarged, and she was eventually diagnosed with an ovarian tumour.

Karen says she wishes she hadn't waited so long to push for a diagnosis.

"I think you know in yourself when things aren't right," she said. "I didn't have many symptoms, so I argued with myself about causing a fuss and paying a lot of money for nothing (MRIs are not covered by Medicare, nor are the blood tests that helped with my diagnosis)."

Karen had an ovary removed and is awaiting further tests before discussing treatment options and her future with her doctor. She says she's hopeful that she's in a good position to carry on with her life as normal.

"I would encourage anyone that thinks, 'this isn't normal' to find a doctor that will run tests and look deeper," said Karen. "Honestly, what price do you put on your health? On your future and the future of your family and loved ones?"

Alisha-Jane Laney

Alisha-Jane Laney, from the Hunter Valley, has suffered from severe endometriosis since she was 14, so when she noticed abnormal bleeding, painful sex and watery discharge, she put it down to that, ignoring her symptoms for six months. It wasn't until she went to her GP for an overdue routine pap smear she discovered she had cervical cancer.

"I didn't think it was necessary for me to be on time with my check-up," Alisha-Jane explained. "I was 23, had the HPV (human papilloma virus) vaccine and was HPV clear.

"Not knowing the symptoms were similar to my endometriosis, I put it off for around six months. I didn't realise they were early symptoms of cervical cancer."

With early detection and treatment, Alisha-Jane has been lucky. "I have successfully been in the clear for a year now," she said. "Although had I not had that pap smear and listened to my body, it may be a different story."

Alisha-Jane says it's crucial for women to make the time to get their routine check-ups.

"Make time," she said. "Most workplaces will be understanding of you coming in late to go and have a check-up, better than not turning up at all when it's too late."

Carrie Balfour

Carrie Balfour of the Sunshine Coast had never had a pap smear until the age of 26. She showed no symptoms of cervical cancer so was shocked at her diagnosis, especially as she was already being treated for polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Carrie has undergone surgery and is awaiting biopsy results in November before deciding with her doctors on further treatment.

"I know by the age of 26 I should have [had a pap smear]," she said. "Looking back now, I realise I was stupid and was overwhelmed when I was first diagnosed with PCOS, and I was never prompted by any of the doctors to have a pap smear so it wasn't until 12 months after the PCOS diagnosis I had a pap smear."

Carrie urges women to be responsible for their own health.

"Just put yourself first," she said. "You are no good to anyone if you are ill or don't take care of yourself. It takes one appointment every five years to get a pap smear. It couldn't be easier."

What to look out for

Medical oncologist Associate Professor Linda Mileshkin says early symptoms of gynaecological cancers to look for include abdominal bloating; feeling full quickly; frequent or urgent urination; back, abdominal or pelvic pain; constipation; menstrual irregularities; fatigue; indigestion; itching, burning or soreness; lumps, sores or wart-like growths; and pain during sex. 

"If any of these symptoms are new for you and you have experienced them multiple times during a four-week period, it's important to discuss them with your doctor," says Linda.

There are plenty of other explanations for those symptoms and they don't necessarily mean you have cancer, but Linda says why wait and wonder? And don't count on screening tests to keep you safe.

"While there is a routine screening test for cervical cancer, there are no routine screening tests for other types of gynaecological cancers. This means they can go undetected until symptoms present."

Karen, Alisha, Alisha-Jane and Carrie have each created an Everyday Hero page to raise money for Save the Box, a campaign raising awareness and funds for gynaecological cancers. 

Karen says 38 women have raised more than $300,000 for Save the Box so far. "And with 15 women diagnosed with gynaecological cancer every day, it's an incredibly important cause."

Find out more about Save the Box and sign up at www.savethebox.org.au