First published by The Pool on 28 March 2017
I met Rebecca Readshaw about eight years ago, long before she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She is the warm, down-to-earth wife of a friend – a BBC camera operator and floor manager with a nose ring, tattoos and a huge smile. She was 31 when she got her diagnosis; at 32, she underwent major surgery, during which her womb, her ovaries, most of her bowel, the bottom lining of her diaphragm and her appendix were removed.
The symptoms had been misdiagnosed for some time. For over a year, Rebecca had been dealing with intense stomach pain, constipation and bleeding. Initially, these were assumed to be the lingering effects of a bug she’d picked up while travelling in India. “The doctor said, ‘You have IBS and your bowels have taken a bit of a battering, so they’re going to take time to heal,’” she recalls. “So I thought, ‘OK, fair enough.’ That carried on for a good few months, but I didn’t want to keep complaining about it.” In reality, a large tumour on her ovaries was pressing on her bowel.
By the time she was referred for a colonoscopy, the tumour had become a visible lump in her side. “I thought about it being something more sinister and just pushed those thoughts away,” she says. “I’ve never had anybody close to me have cancer. I just thought, ‘You’re being a hypochondriac.’” She was sent for a series of scans and was confused when she was then given an appointment at the gynaecology clinic. “The nurse looked sad and she said, ‘We know what’s wrong with you. It’s not your bowels – you’ve got ovarian cancer.’ The first thing I asked was whether I’d be able to have children and she said, ‘No.’”
In 2013, she underwent the surgery and six cycles of chemo, during which she lost her hair. She was given a stoma and a permanent colostomy bag, which was perhaps the hardest blow to bear; when the nurse came to teach her how to change it, she initially felt repulsed and squeamish. After the surgery, she was also very weak and recalls going out for a short walk one day and wetting herself, because she didn’t have the strength to hold it. “I thought, ‘Is this my life now? I feel like an old lady.’”
The hysterectomy triggered menopause, so Rebecca was put on HRT – unfortunately, this boosted the growth of the cancerous cells, which had now spread to her right lung and her liver. At the end of 2013, she was told that the cancer was stage 4: treatable, but not curable. She came off the HRT and her condition remained stable, without treatment, for 18 months, during which time she bought a flat – and she and her longterm boyfriend, Ming Yeung, got married. “I think it was just a case of, ‘These are the things I wanted to do, so I better do them quick,’” she says.
When the cancer began to progress again, she was put on an oestrogen inhibitor, which gave her hot flushes and painful joints, but held the cells at bay until October last year. Since January 2017, she’s been on Trametinib, a drug that’s being trialled with some promising early results – and some of her cancerous patches appear to have subsided slightly.
Like many women in their thirties – including me – Rebecca knew nothing about ovarian cancer previously. According to Cancer Research UK, a woman has a one in 50 chance of getting it, but it’s very unusual at our age – from 2012 to 2014, an average of 53 per cent of cases diagnosed each year were in women aged 65 and over. Nevertheless, her experience is not unheard of and we’d all benefit from knowing what to look for. The charity Ovacome uses the acronym BEAT: B is for bloating that does not come and go; E is for eating less and feeling full more quickly. “In hindsight, that had happened,” says Rebecca. “I remember being really hungry, eating half my food and being so full – then, within an hour, thinking, ‘Oh, I’m hungry again.’” A is for abdominal pain and T is the all-important advice: tell your GP.
Rebecca doesn’t know how the current treatment will pan out or what is next. She misses travelling, which has always been one of her great passions – but, after a recent incident in which she was hospitalised with severe stomach pain, she feels anxious about going too far from home. “I do think that I probably won’t grow old, which is a weird feeling,” she says, pausing for a moment. “But, if I’m not here tomorrow, I’ve had a really fortunate life. I’ve had a good job, I’ve got loads of friends, I’ve had a lot of fun. Some people go through this and they don’t have any support. So, I do feel lucky, for loads of things, and I just have to remind myself of that.”
Rebecca Readshaw is working with Ovacome, who run a free support line on 0800 008 7054, staffed by a team of specialists in ovarian cancer. For Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, Ovacome is asking women to wear teal nail polish to spark up conversations about the disease.