Heather Hawkins is a mother and ovarian cancer survivor who has achieved incredible things. Not the least of which completing a 42km marathon this year across a harsh North Pole wasteland, taking first place in the women’s category.
What symptoms alerted you to start to talk to a doctor?
My ovarian cancer symptoms started out as rather vague, fairly unremarkable ones: general tiredness, abdominal discomfort, abdominal swelling, urinary frequency, but then when the symptoms persisted over a 2-3 months timeframe, and didn’t come and go with my periods, I knew there was something wrong.
In what ways did the discovery that you had ovarian cancer change your life?
Discovering that I had ovarian cancer was a truly confronting and unsettling experience. In February 2007 my life had been humming along. I was a busy mum with two kids: an 11 year old son Callum, and a 14 year old daughter Rebekah. My husband Doug and I were running a film and video production company, it was demanding, but fulfilling work. But like so many other Australian families out there, my life’s focus was pinned on the day to day. We were balancing work, school, homework, kids sports, planning holidays, paying off the mortgage, spending time with friends and interstate relatives. When I received my cancer diagnosis I was transported out of the everyday and into survival mode. Suddenly I was thinking about life, my prognosis, my mortality, and all the future experiences that I still wanted desperately to share with my family. I wanted to be alive, to live life to the full. It prompted me to reassess priorities. I decided to become more focused on my health, nurture my faith and change my head-space to a bigger picture perspective. Today I’m a much more resilient and adventurous version of the woman who sat down to receive her ovarian cancer diagnosis … and I’m one who’s a whole lot more grateful to be alive!
How did you feel in the moment you found out you had ovarian cancer?
To hear that initial diagnosis, to feel the sudden wave of uncertainty, it’s a very surreal moment. I remember sitting quietly in my Doctor’s surgery. Listening. Attempting to process it as best as I could and come up with some sought of action plan then and there. I had to survive this, but how? And how would this affect my family, my health and beyond? I’m incredibly grateful that my husband Doug was there on that day. We held hands. We shared the burden. He drove me home. That night we talked with our kids, our family and friends. It was incredibly hard breaking the news. We prayed together. Not being alone in this battle, brought such immense reassurance and strength.
Do you find there is any stigma in discussing gynaecological cancers or other aspects of women’s health?
When I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s there was definitely a stigma attached to women’s health and gynaecological cancers. These topics simply weren’t talked about and there was very little information out there in the public arena. These days, we’ve come a long way. Education has increased and public health awareness campaigns and articles in the media have helped break down those barriers. The message is getting out there. Women today are generally far more open and comfortable in talking to each other about their health issues and they’re definitely more prepared to seek help if they notice something is wrong. I think we’ve realised that these topics are part of life and even the briefest of discussions could be a lifesaving one.
How do you think your experiences with cancer have altered the ways you perceive yourself?
I was so fortunate that the cancer was found in time – such an immense relief. I’m thrilled that through this whole experience I’ve gained a whole lot more courage and I’ve become a far more relaxed, carefree and positive person. I’m stronger mentally, emotionally and physically and I’m no longer frightened of life’s challenges, of stepping out of my comfort zone and pushing the boundaries. I could have easily given myself permission to be extra cautious in life and anxious about the cancer returning, but I’ve made a conscious decision not to be. I’ve always been an adventurous person, but surviving cancer has truly reignited that drive to make the most of life. I’ve found a pathway to pursue my dreams through long distance running and I’m wrapt that my mind and legs have been able to keep up with these ambitions!