‘I had a stomach ache, I was severely constipated and struggled to eat,’ remembers Seren Hughes, now 27. ‘I was experiencing textbook ovarian cancer symptoms.’
Seren was just 19-years-old when she began suffering with all the key signs of ovarian cancer – including bloating, abdominal pain and constipation – but with so little public awareness surrounding the symptoms, Seren didn’t even consider the possibility that she could be so unwell.
In fact, only one in 10 women know the signs of the disease, and only one in five know that bloating is one of the key indicators.
Now, to mark Ovarian Cancer Awareness month, Seren is sharing her story in the hopes of educating others.
It was during her first year of university that Seren began to feel flu-like, lethargic and had gained weight – but she put it down to post-Christmas bloating and classic winter illnesses.
‘I didn’t think much of it as it wasn’t impacting my life significantly,’ she remembers. ‘But it carried on until late February when it became more consuming.’
The then-student developed stomach pains, became constipated and found it difficult to eat.
‘I was still gaining weight around my stomach and nowhere else,’ she says.
‘My stomach was rock hard and I constantly carried a hot water bottle. I had to get up using pressure from my hand on my lower back to hoist me up.’
She visited the GP who believed her symptoms to be a result of severe constipation. She was prescribed medication and her blood was taken, in the hopes of ruling anything else out.
‘I had an unknown call during a lecture and went out to take it,’ Seren says.
‘My GP had called me directly on the Monday, and my blood test was only on the Friday prior.
‘He asked me if I had some paper, I wrote down a CA125 result and he told me to take someone with me to the local A&E urgently.
‘This part was quite rapid, and if it wasn’t for that proactive and cautious GP, I don’t know what would have happened.
‘Campaigns and health awareness messages hadn’t reached me for me to know that what I was experiencing were textbook ovarian cancer symptoms – all of them in fact.’
At A&E, medics thought she might have an issue with her appendix, or even be pregnant.
But she was later taken for a CT scan and was told she had a ‘rugby ball-sized’ 35cm ‘mass’ on her right ovary.
‘I was so confused and it was like someone had opened up a new world to me,’ says Seren. ‘Never once did I think it was cancer and it took a while to come to terms with that.
‘I was so unwell, weak and underweight, despite the large mass, that I needed to be fed through a tube and given constant antibiotics from a blood infection before I was fit enough for the 10 hour operation that removed my tumour, fallopian tube and my omentum.’
Two weeks after the operation in April, she was diagnosed with stage 1c ovarian cancer, or mucinous adenocarcinoma of the ovary.
‘It sounds quite extreme maybe, but I expected it,’ Seren says.
‘I’d been in a cancer ward, I’d been thinking a lot about that being the case and what would come next.
‘There was also a Teenage Cancer Trust nurse in the room as I walked in and it confirmed it before my surgeon even said the words.’
The time between Seren being diagnosed and having the tumour removed was comparatively fast, compared to damning research Target Ovarian Cancer uncovered – nearly a third of patients wait over three months from first visiting their GP to get the correct diagnosis.
However, having to undergo this while so young left Seren feeling frustrated and isolated.
‘Being a young person with cancer is an additional challenge,’ she says.
‘I had just arrived at university – I gained independence and lost it again overnight, so it was important for me at this time to stay as connected to university as possible, mainly to keep my sanity, particularly during chemotherapy that summer.
‘Despite having a close network of family and friends who gave me the world of support, it can be isolating to be a young person with cancer as no one ever really gets it.
‘Financially it was hard as I struggled to work for a while because of my fatigue and long term effects, and student loans don’t go very far.
‘It’s hard to get an education because of “chemo brain”, the trauma, the stress, the hospital appointments.
‘It’s a lot to take before you’ve really even experienced the world.
‘Things you took for granted – from your fertility to getting cheap travel insurance – are taken from you before you realise you had them.’
Meeting other young people with cancer through a charity helped her feel less alone in her experience.
After chemotherapy treatment during the summer, in August, Seren was given confirmation of ‘no evidence of disease’, and still today has regular check ups, blood tests and ultrasound scans – and will continue to for the next few years.
But the end of treatment wasn’t the end of the impact cancer had on Seren’s life.
‘I was diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety a few years later,’ she says.
‘I became very generally anxious and suffered with PTSD from particular smells and sounds associated with intensive care, which is something I didn’t realise would happen and is so common in cancer patients and people who have stayed a period in intensive care.
‘I was given EMDR therapy and counselling which helped me.’
Know the symptoms of ovarian cancer
What are the symptoms?
- Persistent bloating – not bloating that comes and goes
- Feeling full quickly and/or loss of appetite
- Pelvic or abdominal pain (that’s your tummy and below)
- Urinary symptoms (needing to wee more urgently or more often than usual)
Occasionally there can be other symptoms:
- Changes in bowel habit (e.g. diarrhoea or constipation)
- Extreme fatigue (feeling very tired)
- Unexplained weight loss
- Any bleeding after the menopause should always be investigated by a GP
Symptoms will be:
- Frequent – they usually happen more than 12 times a month
- Persistent – they don’t go away
- New – they are not normal for you
She adds: ‘It is still a traumatic experience to this day, but I am in a privileged position in that it doesn’t rear it’s head much anymore – although sometimes it does hit you at weird times, such as watching a TV show and someone is on a drip of chemotherapy.
‘You can almost feel the cold in your veins.’
Today, Seren wants to help other young people living with cancer by working for a cancer charity, whilst studying for MSc in Public Health.
‘There are so many incredible professionals working in the cancer sector and in clinical care. I was so well looked after and supported in an age-appropriate way, but that isn’t the same for most young people,’ she says.
‘Many are fobbed off early with their symptoms and many aren’t listened to until it’s too late.
‘Disease and ill health can happen to anyone at anytime. I’m only so versed in this now because it happened to me, which I why I’ve been so involved in campaigns and charity work.
‘Before, health was something I never really thought of too much. I was active and healthy but that changed at 19.
‘I’m now much more health conscious and became really interested in how we can improve the health of everyone, particularly young people.’
For more information visit Target Ovarian Cancer.
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