Interview with Heather Hawkins – Part One.

Heather Six Foot track marathon

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!

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Get the facts: Endometriosis

An invisible illness

Endometrial cancer and other conditions concern the lining of the uterus, called the endometrium. The endometrium is made up of several layers, including skin-like cells (surface epithelium), blood vessels, tissue spaces and glands. It is the most common cancer of the uterus.

Most endometrial cancers are adenocarcinomas (cancers that begin in the glandular cells, which make and release mucus and other fluids). But there are other types, varying in numerous ways, including the rate at which they grow and aggressiveness.

The diagnosis of endometrial cancer is also rapidly rising, so much so that some researchers are calling it a ‘tsunami’. Over the last 20 years its incidence has risen 22%. Lifestyle factors like obesity, in particular are known risk factors. Though by no means a cure all solution, taking steps to improve your lifestyle might mean a reduction of risk. For that reason we present some of our lovely warriors, some of them gynaecological cancer survivors while others simply passionate about improving awareness and health for women’s cancers.

Heather improving her health by stepping along the bondi to cogee walk.
Heather improving her health by stepping along the bondi to cogee walk.
Wanda has been clocking up steps around the UK.
Wanda has been clocking up steps around the UK.
Mother and Daughter bonding time in Dee Why for Camilla and Sachie.
Mother and Daughter bonding time in Dee Why for Camilla and Sachie.
Charmayne is stepping through New Zealand.
Charmayne is stepping through New Zealand.
Cathy is training for a half-marathon.
Cathy is training for a half-marathon.

Get the facts: Gynaecological Cancer

 

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Gynaecological cancers are cancers of the female reproductive system.  These include ovarian and fallopian tube cancers, cervical cancer, endometrial cancer (cancer of the uterus) and cancer of the vulva and vagina. Although they are a common cancer in our community there are still many misconsceptions, misunderstandings and important conversations to be had about gynaecological cancer. In Australia on average 13 women are diagnosed with gynaecological cancer every day and 4 will pass away. However early detection can reduce the risks associated and improve chances of survival.

The only screening test for gynaecological cancers is for cervical cancer – the Pap smear. It does not test for any other cancer.

There are simple measures you can take to help identify symptoms of gynaecological cancer:

  • Know your family health history and be aware of gynaecological cancer symptoms
  • Know and listen to your body
  • Take control of your health, talk to your GP if you notice any irregular body changes.

Symptoms of gynaecological cancers can include:

  • abnormal or persistent vaginal bleeding
  • unusual vaginal discharge
  • pain, pressure or discomfort in the abdomen
  • swelling of the abdomen
  • change in bowel or bladder habits
  • pain during intercourse
  • vaginal itching, burning or soreness
  • lumps, sores or wart-like growths.

These symptoms can depend on where the tumour is situated, the size of the tumour and how quickly it is growing. Not all symptoms these symptoms by themselves mean gynaecological cancer is certain but if they continue you should see your doctor and be thoroughly checked. Above all, it is important that you know your own body and talk to a doctor if something doesn’t feel right.

A risk factor is any factor associated with an increased chance of developing a particular health condition. Some of these factors for gynaecological cancers include:

  • increasing age
  • having a strong family history
  • identified gene mutations
  • reproductive history such as child-bearing
  • exposure to hormones – produced by the body or taken as medication
  • exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) in the womb
  • viral infection such as human papilloma virus (HPV)
  • lifestyle factors such as smoking and those leading to excess body weight

In saying this, it should be noted that having a particular risk factor does not mean a woman will develop a gynaecological cancer.  Many women have at least one risk factor but will never develop a gynaecological cancer, while others may get a gynaecological cancer with no known risk factors. Even if a woman with a gynaecological cancer has a risk factor, it is usually hard to know the level to which it may have contributed to the development of her disease.

For more information visit:

http://www.goforgynae.org.au/know-your-body/

http://canceraustralia.gov.au/affected-cancer/cancer-types/gynaecological-cancers

Who are we?

Gynaecological cancers can affect the lives of those who experience them, and the people who surround them, in many noticeableJoan_of_Arc_on_horseback ways. These cancers relate to the female reproductive system, including ovarian and fallopian tube cancers, cervical cancer, endometrial cancer (cancer of the uterus) and cancer of the vulva and vagina.

The statistics for gynaecological cancers can be undoubtable intimidating. In Australia on average 13 women are diagnosed with gynaecological cancer every day. The survival rate for all gynaecological cancers combined five years from diagnosis is 67% (for comparison, the same statistic for breast cancer is 90%). To be diagnosed can feel like the beginning of a long uphill battle.

On top of this, gynaecological cancer on the whole can sometimes feel like an awkward conversation to have. Their still remains a certain amount of stigma in discussing these issues.

This blog is a reaction to these trends. We want to counteract the negativity, silence and stigma with healthy, positive and celebratory discussion. We want to share the stories of gynaecological cancer survivors, learn about gynaecological cancers, take part in conversations and encourage those affected by gynaecological cancers to share their own experiences.

We want to celebrate these women for what they are – warriors.