ACT News

Ovarian cancer patient shares her story to raise awareness

Before Helen Smith was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer in 2012, she had no idea having a family history of breast cancer was linked to the disease.

And she's not the only one.

Helen Smith wants more people to be aware of the link between a family history of breast cancer and developing ovarian ...
Helen Smith wants more people to be aware of the link between a family history of breast cancer and developing ovarian cancer. Photo: Jamila Toderas

Forty-four per cent of Australians with a family history of breast and or ovarian cancer have not discussed it with their GP, a national study commissioned by Ovarian Cancer Australia found, despite up to one in five occurrences of ovarian cancer being an inherited form of the disease.

Mrs Smith's mother died just nine months after being diagnosed with breast cancer aged 50 in 1972.

"In those days they didn't have chemo," she said.

"I was very vigilant about my mammograms … but at no stage was I ever encouraged to have ultrasounds just in case I might have had the start of ovarian cancer."

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Mrs Smith shared her story as part of ovarian cancer awareness month.

She said extra funding for research and drug trials was sorely needed.

If ovarian cancer is found in its early stages, women have an 80 per cent chance of being alive and well after five years, but for the 75 per cent of women diagnosed with advanced cancer the survival rate drops to 43 per cent.

Unlike cervical and breast cancer there is no early detection test, instead recognising the risks and symptoms is vital.

For Mrs Smith the symptoms were minor but fortunately she went to the GP.

"I'd been to the doctor twice with bloating, being off my food, feeling uncomfortable with eating and feeling full very quickly," she said.

"He suggested I have an ultrasound and that's when the ovarian cancer came up."

Mrs Smith's GP referred her to an oncologist and she began chemotherapy and had her ovaries removed.

For 47 per cent of women it took two or more visits to the GP with symptoms before they were referred to a specialist highlighting the need for GPs to also recognise the signs, Ovarian Cancer Australia's chief executive Jane Hill said.

Other symptoms include abdominal or pelvic pain and the need to urinate often or urgently.

Ovarian cancer most commonly affects women over 50 who have been through menopause, but women of all ages can develop the disease.

After Mrs Smith's diagnosis she found out through gene testing that she carried the BRCA2 gene fault which increased her risk of developing ovarian and/or breast cancer.

Her brother, sister and daughter have since undergone testing and found they too carry the gene. Her sister and daughter are taking preventative measures to reduce their chances of getting cancer including surgery.

Mrs Smith's cancer returned in 2014, but in recent weeks she has begun a new drug Olaparib​ to help her immune system fight the cancer as part of a Sydney-based trial for women with ovarian cancer and the BRCA gene fault.

"I'm stable so they're pleased about that," she said.

A woman is considered to have a family history of ovarian cancer if a first-degree relative had breast cancer when they were younger than 60, ovarian cancer, or a combination of two or more first-degree relatives with breast or ovarian cancer.

Ovarian Cancer Australia is encouraging people to host an 'afternoon teal' – teal being the international colour for ovarian cancer – to raise money ahead of Teal Ribbon Day on February 24.

For more information visit: ovariancancer.net.au.