Interview with a relative with a cancer patient

broCancer can affect more than just those who are diagnosed. We take a look at cancer from a different angle with Tony Melville, who’s sister is undergoing treatment for a gynaecological cancer. In particular, we focus on the importance of support and knowing your family history.

Has your family had any history of gynaecological cancers prior to your sister’s diagnosis?

My sister has recently been diagnosed with a gynaecological cancer. My Mother died from bowel cancer but the cancer was so advanced and her actual death came so quickly after the diagnosis that it is hard to know what the original source of the cancer was. There is also significant family history of great aunts and others with cancers.

Did you know much about gynaecological cancers prior to her diagnosis?

I had heard of gynaecological cancers but had not given much thought to it. I think in practice I just grouped all cancers under a generic cancer label and did not consider any differences

What pre-existing ideas did you have about these cancers?

In effect I had very limited pre-existing ideas. I considered cancer as one generic disease and did not give much thought to any differences or how they were treated, prevented and what might be required to beat them. The big C was to be feared

How did you feel when you found out she was diagnosed?

Scared, firstly for her then for my family and myself. The time from diagnosis to surgery was very quick, so it all went by very quickly and was a bit of a blur. I was conscious of the fact that there is a family history and so it just reinforced the need for my family and I to stay vigilant with regards regular checks and understanding the symptoms.

How do you try to support her?

We live in different cities but I tried to talk to her more often so she knew I was thinking of her and was available for her to talk and share her feelings. Provide love and comfort. I visited her and spent time talking about her fears. I think this helped her.

Has the diagnosis affected you in any unexpected way?

Not in an unexpected way but it made me feel closure to her and want to spend time with her. At least in terms of time talking on the phone and more visits. It amplified my feelings for my family (wife and children) as well as spend more time thinking of my parents and childhood. Make you think more about the people you care about. So none of this would be unexpected.

The V word

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There is a certain amount of stigma and misunderstanding that can come with attempting to discuss cancer, especially those of the gynaecological sort. In fact, it seems a lot of us struggle to discuss or ‘lady parts’ in general. According to a study by Ovarian Cancer Action “women aged 18 to 24 are four times less likely than those aged 55-64 to go to a doctor with a sexual health issue.” Furthermore, a total of 66% of young partakers in the study said they were embarrassed to say the word vagina. Comparatively, 11% over the age of 65 were just as timid.

If your wondering what this has to do with cancer then remember that illnesses like ovarian cancer are much easier to treat if diagnosed early. If women aren’t comfortable discussing then the more difficult it is for any gynaecological issue to be discovered, examined and treated.

Visiting a health care professional and getting informed on gynaecological cancers, and gynaecological health more generally, is an important aspect to maintaining health. Remember, your doctor has probably heard it all before anyway.

Stigma breeds silence, which fuels fear and further misunderstandings. In many ways, unless we consciously attempt to discuss these issues, the lack of conversation will eventually only exacerbate the problem. Breaking this vicious circle makes life easier for people with cancer. (Once you have cancer it is not a death sentence or a matter of fate – treatment to improve survival chances and standards of living is something your health care professional can help you with). Additionally, it can also change public attitudes towards early detection and prevention.

With all that in mind, why are we so embarrassed? After all its nothing to be ashamed of and the silence is harming our health.

Repeat after me: Vagina.

Interview with Penny Kemp – Part Three

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 1.31.43 pmHere is the final instalment of our interview with ovarian cancer survivor Penny Kemp.

In what ways did the discovery that you had cancer change your life?

In every way. It changes your entire existence. I think differently about pretty much everything. I am the most compassionate person I know, I have the ability to help a lot of people and offer them hope, but I never do anything at my expense. I do everything whole heartedly but mindfully and I’m honest to the core now, with my words, feelings, with everything. Nothing is unresolved.

Do you find there is any stigma in discussing gynaecological cancers or other aspects of women’s health?

Yes. I do a bit of public speaking about it and talk to my friends about it all quite openly and they in turn tell others. I have a Facebook page and other avenues where I put stuff out there. But like I say, I had ovarian cancer which is getting more and more socially acceptable by the day, I can shout from the roof tops that I survived ovarian cancer – but who is going to talk about vagina or vulva cancer? It just brings a picture to people’s heads that they don’t want to imagine.

Is there anything that you would encourage women to do if they were in a similar position to you but nervous about approaching someone about something like cancer?

Be brave. If something is not right for your body, if there is a nagging feeling in your head that something is wrong, get it checked out. If you can’t, tell a friend and make them take you. So much can be done if you catch these things early.

If you could say anything to young women about what you have learnt on your journey and throughout your life so far what would it be?

Know your body. Be aware of how your body works, stay as healthy as you can from as young as you can. Get a GP that you are comfortable with and stick to that person. Your history needs to be in one place, not a bunch of medical centres because it’s convenient. Have medical check-ups as they are suggested or required. Know your body – know your risk. Laugh. Don’t stress the small stuff. Fall madly in love. Smile. Exercise. Get a pet. Have great girlfriends. Love what you do.

Interview with Penny Kemp – Part Two

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 1.36.22 pmWe present part two of our interview with cancer survivor Penny Kemp as she explains some of the more psychological aspects to battling cancer.

How did you manage the mental aspects of battling cancer?

I named my chemo pump Tara Goddess of Healing, I got up, and I moved. I spent an exurbanite amount of time using visualisation techniques. I would lay at night and close my eyes and picture a house in in-between the ocean and the mountains. I would visualise that I would walk in with all my friends with me and take the medicine I so desperately needed off the shelf and I would take it with all my friends standing around me in a circle holding hands. When I had the medicine, we would all go down to the beach and get in the ocean and the ocean would wash through me and wash all the bad stuff away. I was a brave Warrior Sista and I would go into battle and beat whatever came my way.

I also never took anti-nausea meds after my one week ‘on’…. I would come home on the Friday night, eat a huge meal of Chinese takeout, and then spend the evening watching movies with a vomit bucket. I would vomit all night, but the next day I would feel so much better than if I had taken the anti-nausea. I would close my eyes and imagine that all the chemo I didn’t need was being expelled and that my body would then be clean and healed for the next round.

I got up and moved. To this day I almost never sit. I stand up at my office job and I stand up and any given opportunity. I move all the time. I don’t ever want to stop.

How do you think your experiences with cancer have altered the ways you perceive yourself? 

I unleashed my inner sassy ranga self. There is no two ways about it. I used to be a pushover – I’m so far removed from that now that I had to go to therapy to reign myself in. From the minute I walked out of the diagnosis I was a different person. My poor husband didn’t know what hit him. Our marriage suffered greatly because of it too. I was untouchable. I took the bulls by the horns and didn’t let go. I was the strongest feistiest version of myself I have ever been. I was completely untouchable – until I was in my oncologist’s office, and only then did I crack, break down, cry, be vulnerable. I’m still the same today, although a much much softer version.

Interview with Penny Kemp – Part One

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 1.35.27 pmWe discuss the symptoms and treatment of gynaecological cancer with survivor Penny Kemp.

What symptoms alerted you to start to talk to a doctor?

When I look back, I can only think of one symptom that was annoying and that was bloating, however I had been bloated for so very long it wasn’t something I noticed in particular prior to being diagnosed. What sent me to the doctor (or emergency room) was having excruciating pain during sexual intercourse. It was so painful I ended up driving to the hospital.

How did you know that you had gynaecological cancer of some sort?

After being checked out in the ER, I was told to go home and that I was constipated. However I persisted and finally a female doctor ordered a CT scan because she said that no woman should ever have such painful sex. They found a 10cm tumour in my right ovary which at the time they did not believe was malignant as I was ‘too young’ (36 yr). We decided to remove the ovary and I was prepped for surgery, however a more urgent case came in through the ER and I was bumped and sent home. It took me 21 days exactly to get back in to have the surgery, when I woke up the nurse said “Doctor found something Mrs Kemp” it turned out to be a small cell carcinoma of the right ovary.

How did you feel in the moment you found out you had cancer?

I fainted. My husband sat next to me and watched me hit the floor as the doctor on call gave us the news that there was very little he could do for me except refer to me The Royal Hospital for Women (TRHW) and hope they could give me treatment. He did however tell me to get my affairs in order. When I got to TRHW a week later I had a CT scan and my cancer had returned and spread. It was that aggressive that it had grown back bigger and spread in just 21 days.

What were some of the processes you went through while fighting cancer? 

I met my oncologist Prof. Michael Friedlander and then pretty much handed my life over to him. He told me all sorts of things, what I had, what they would do, the side effects, and I listened to none of it. I had gone onto to google the day before and read all of 3 lines about ovarian cancer and it was so grim back then that I never looked it up again. I decided that Michael Friedlander was the expert, he could worry about me. I didn’t even find out what I had exactly until my 1 year anniversary, I didn’t want to know anything. He could deal with the medical, I would deal with the mental. My father had survived a ‘terminal’ illness when he was young, he said simply this “do as your told by Prof & the nurses” and that’s what I did. I handed everything over to them.

What treatments did you have and what was your experience of them?

I had surgery to remove my right ovary. I had 6 x 1 week treatments of chemotherapy where I was an inpatient for the week I was on the pump, then went home for 2 weeks off, then back in again. I then had 6 weeks of daily radiation where I had my zap at 7.30am then went into work for the day. I vomited …. A lot! By the end of the 6 chemo cycles I had the most all-encompassing fatigue I could ever image but overall I found that I adapted really well. My oncology team was amazing, I met lots of others in treatment and generally just got on with it. I was on a lot of steroids so I spent my days walking the halls of the hospital and hanging out with other patients that couldn’t get out of bed. The receptionist at the hospital told me from the start – get up and get dressed, every single day.

4 reasons to begin talking about Ovarian Cancer

Everyone is aware of breast cancer’s pink ribbon campaigns. But another conversation on women’s health is lost amongst this talk – ovarian cancer. Although the disease is rare compared to breast cancer, the statistics are far incredibly grim. The five-year survival rate for the disease is just 43 percent, compared to breast cancer’s roughly 90 percent. Often ovarian cacner has vague and non-specific symptoms until the cancer has reached an advanced stage and survival is poor. So why are gynaecological cancers, like ovarian cancer, so hush-hush?

1. Ovarian cancer isn’t as prevalent as breast cancer

This fact affects the conversation on women’s health in numerous and sometimes unexpected ways. There hasn’t been a high-profile public figure or well-known campaigners diagnosed with ovarian cancer in some time who might bring people’s attention to the disease. With new cases of breast cancer hitting the news all the time, it’s on the public’s mind more often.

2. There is still lots of work to be in research outside of awareness.

While it’s great to be talking openly about breast cancer and the success of October’s pink ribbon, there is still a lot of work to be done with ovarian awareness. Even more so, there is work to be done to help us understand ovarian cancer. For instance, doctors have been working on identifying the key emerging symptoms of ovarian cancer—like bloating, early satiety while eating, urinary frequency or urgency, pelvic or abdominal pain, so women can get diagnosed earlier and survive the disease.

3. Some women mistakenly think they’re covered.

For breast cancer, there are mammograms and even the self-exam. These are external organs that you can check – you can feel lumps. For gynaecological cancer, pap smears only test for cervical cancer and not ovarian cancer, which many women don’t realise. It is harder to catch these diseases early.

4. Some think ovarian cancer is an automatic death sentence (it’s not).

The perception of deadliness of ovarian cancer is another reason we’re not hearing enough about ovarian cancer. While breast cancer is one of the most common cancers, ovarian cancer is one of the deadliest. However, if diagnosed in the early stages, survival rates jump to more than 90 percent in stage one. For stage two it’s more than 70 percent. We should get past the ‘this is so deadly, this is so sad’ conversation to other important topics. It is important for women to know the symptoms and advocate for themselves.

Interview with Heather Hawkins – Part Two

MC1_4485 - Version 2

We present part two of our interview with cancer survivor and marathon runner, Heather Hawkins. Here she talks about the experience of running in inhospitable conditions at the North Pole and lessons she’s learnt along the way.

What inspired you to start running?

In 2012, on a whim, I entered the 4km Mother’s day classic run. It was a new challenge, a great fundraising idea and I signed up with my two teenage children. But at that time running 4km was a daunting prospect, I’d never run that far before! I remember training at Centennial Park. I had tired, stiff legs, I was constantly out of breath. I had to sit down on the grass. What was I doing? But I persevered. I never allowed myself to give up. On race day we ran the race together and I crossed the finish line with a smile. I was elated. It was my light bulb moment. That race sent me off on a trajectory that I could never have imagined.

What made you decide to take on the North Pole Marathon?

Late last year, I was keen to find a new challenge with my running. The idea simply came from a brief chat with a friend at the start line of the Melbourne marathon. He happened to mention a friend of his had trained in an industrial freezer for a marathon at the South Pole. It caught my imagination! I spent the entire marathon thinking about it! As soon as I got back to my hotel room I was on the internet and searching details. Unfortunately the South Pole marathon was full but there were still places available in the North Pole Marathon. Perfect! I signed up. It would be an adventure. It would be a challenge. Besides, what better way to celebrate the milestone of turning 50?!

What kind of thoughts did you have while you were running the marathon?

I remember so clearly standing at the start line, with every inch of skin covered, listening to my breathing in my balaclava, jogging on the spot to keep warm, hi-fiving those around me and thinking “Well, here goes! I’m running off into the unknown.” I wasn’t anxious, I was excited. It was 1.30pm in the afternoon. The weather conditions were perfect. Blue sky, mild winds, -28 degrees Celsius. The surface was soft snow with a crunchy crust, small icy sections and cracks and ridges in the ice. I settled into a good running rhythm. I felt so happy to finally be achieving this dream! Part of my race plan had been to listen to music, but my phone froze only two songs into the race – silence. No! But in hindsight that was the best thing that could have happened to me because without the distraction of music this became a much more personal, emotional race. I’d planned to dedicate each of the 12 laps to certain people in my life: my family, friends and other women with ovarian cancer. I was running this race for them. Halfway through the race the conditions changed. The wind picked up. The snow blew in. The temperature plummeted to -41 degrees celcius and the visibility to only a few metres ahead. Fortunately the course was marked with little black flags every 15 metres or so. Several competitors started to show signs of hypothermia. The medics retired them from the race. They treated others for frost nip. It was crucial to keep every piece of skin covered. My surf lifesaving cap was tied over the top of my beanie and kept my balaclava anchored perfectly. I kept going. Lap 5, 6. I stopped to put on dry socks. My trail runners were wet but luckily my toes were still warm. I ran on. I felt happy and in control. Then I moved up into 3rd place female… then 2nd place… and at the end of the 10th lap I overtook the leader to move into 1st place female. Then I ran like I’ve never run before and didn’t look back. Lap 11, then lap 12. I was still in the lead. I started to cry. I thought about all the people in my world. With 50 metres to go I was on the graded ice running towards the finish line. All the flags were flying. There was the Aussie flag on the left. I’d looked at it every lap. This time I grabbed it. The finish tape was up and I ran through it. I’d won. I’d done it. It had taken me 6 hours, 57 minutes! I was incredibly elated and emotional. I’d survived cancer, turned 50 and running had just given me one of the best days of my life.

What is your next challenge?

My next challenge is the World Marathon Challenge – 7 marathons, on 7 continents, in 7 days in January 2016.I’m so excited about this. It’s a big step up and I’ve got some serious training to do! So I’ll be focusing on strengthening my core, building stamina and practicing running on very tired legs. To do this I’ll be training on consecutive days and at all hours of the clock. I’ve worked out my race nutrition and I’ll spend some time researching the conditions at each location (Antarctica, Chile, Miami, Madrid, Morocco, Dubai & Sydney) How lucky am I that the final marathon is in my home town!

If you could say anything to young women about what you have learnt on your journey and throughout your life so far what would it be?

‘A shifting compass’ and ‘never give up’ are words that now find their way into my conversation. I’m more keenly aware that we all need to make the most of life. We need to change our attitudes to become more positive and focus more on the big picture items. To be the best person we can possibly be: fit, healthy, embracing opportunities, to be caring and actively nurturing our creativity and dreams. I’m so much keener now to experience adventure and push my personal boundaries. I’d really encourage young women to know their bodies and to be proud of them. Never be embarrassed of who you are or what you look like. Never be frightened to talk to someone if you have questions about your health. If you notice any symptoms or signs then seek medical attention straight away, because life is so incredibly precious.