It sounds crazy, but I’d never really heard of ovarian cancer until Pureology told me it was linking up with the Ovarian Cancer Action charity for Ovarian Cancer Awareness month this March. The brand has pledged to raise £20,000 for the charity. The thing is that ovarian cancer doesn’t get as much press or support as more well-known cancers like breast cancer or cervical cancer (that’s detected via smear tests), but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important.
Where breast cancer may affect one in eight woman and ovarian cancer may be one in 52, if you or a loved one is that one, it doesn’t matter what the cancer is. Ovarian cancer often affects older women and is typically diagnosed in those over 65, but this week I spoke with Danielle Golding, 25, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at just 23. She talked me through her journey and offered up some advice for anyone going through a similar experience (or for anyone who is close to someone dealing with cancer).
Did you have any symptoms?
I had bad swelling around the stomach and bad abdominal pains. When I was younger, I suffered from terrible period pains. I kept going to the doctors, but I was told it’s just growing pains and I would get over it. As I got older, it got progressively worse. At one point, my doctor thought it might be gallstones, so she sent me for a scan. When it turned out that it wasn’t, again it was decided it was just general period pains and left it at that.
How did you find out you had ovarian cancer?
One night when I was sleeping, my partner, Niall, rolled over and accidentally hit my stomach. The pain was so excruciating that the next day I couldn’t even stand up straight. I went to work as normal. I’m a hairdresser, and my mum came in to have her hair done. She said I didn’t look right, so we went to the doctor’s that day. They thought it was my appendix and sent me to A&E. Once I was there, the main woman who deals with appendicitis said she had seen many cases in her time and it wasn’t that. I was told to take paracetamol and head home. I was home for an hour, but the pain got so unbearable I went back to A&E. They put me on a drip, I was dehydrated, and they monitored me overnight.
They ran tests, and at first, they thought it was endometriosis, as my mum and auntie had both suffered from it, so there was a family history. It made sense, as the symptoms were similar. One of the tests they ran was to check my CA125 tumour levels. They thought it could be something, but the doctors weren’t sure. I’m only 23, so they thought I was too young. In their heads, they had an inkling, but they wanted to do every test they could to be sure. I went into A&E that first time in June, and by September, they had diagnosed me with ovarian cancer.
How did it feel when you found out?
When I found out, I was feeling really poorly that day and was at home. I got my mum to answer the phone. When they told her the results, her head sunk into her hands. I heard her ask “is it curable?” I sunk into the seat, as I knew exactly what they had said to her. When she got off the phone, she told me not to panic and that we would get through this as a family. It was stage three ovarian cancer [Ed. note: There are four stages].
“No, they’ve got it wrong,” I told her. But they hadn’t. They had already put a treatment plan in place. I was in shock, definitely. When you hear the word “cancer,” you instantly think the worst. I couldn’t believe at the age of 23 I was going through something like that. I had watched shows on the telly like Stand Up 4 Cancer and was aware of Race for Life, and you always think about those poor people going through It. I was now a statistic, and it was terrifying.
Was it difficult to tell the rest of your family and friends?
When my partner got home from work, I sat him down and told him what it was. My partner doesn’t cry a lot—it’s not that he isn’t emotional, but he just doesn’t really cry. He was really positive and told me that we were going to get through this. “This won’t defeat you,” he told me. We sat down at the table with my dad, my sister and my brother, and talked about it. This is what it is, and my dad said we’re going to deal with it as a family. Of course, so many of my friends knew I had been doing poorly and were asking, so my sister helped word a Facebook status everyone could read. It just said I appreciated everyone’s kind messages and that we were going to process this as a family before we could start talking about it. It was a good way to let people know.
What did the treatment involve?
Where the cancer had got so nasty and the tumours so big, chemotherapy wouldn’t have worked on me. It was a case of taking everything away but my womb. The operation was meant to take three hours, but because the cancer was advanced and the tumours were so big, it was more complex than the surgeon had first thought. The surgeon came out of the theatre halfway through and told my family it was becoming a bit more of a situation. My partner flopped into my mum’s arms and cried like a baby.
How long did it take you to recover?
[Ed. note: Danielle went into menopause after the operation.] I woke up with hot sweats, suffered headaches, you name it, it happened. I had the operation in October, and I was off work until the end of December. I went back to work part-time, literally just two half days a week. [The doctors] said I needed quite a lot of time off, but I wanted to get back into a routine, so it was me pushing to go back to work. There’s only so much daytime TV you can watch.
Did people treat you differently?
One of my best friends, she didn’t change, but she was there for me. She said we needed a girly one and took me to Nirvana spa. She’d put some money away for a rainy day, and she said, “You’re my rainy day.” I talked to another best friend in Kent every day on the phone. She became stronger for me, especially when I felt low.
How did you mentally get through the diagnosis and treatment?
There were days when I was really low. I was told I wouldn’t be able to have children naturally, which was a massive sore point for me. I always wanted to be a mum; before everything happened, we were trying to have a baby. We’re going through the IVF process now on the NHS. It always niggles away in the back of my mind that I won’t have a normal pregnancy and that I won’t be able to get excited in the same way. But my boss always says that if you keep thinking positive, then your mind and body will be. My surgeon also told me that while there is a possibility the cancer could come back if I worry about it, it will drive me insane. I’ve gone through it once, and I would know what to expect if we have to cross that bridge again.
How has your lifestyle changed since?
It’s been two years now, so I can get back to the gym. The only thing I have had to change is my diet. I have to stick to a healthy, balanced lifestyle, drink plenty of water and keep an eye on what I eat. I was told to eat foods like turmeric and honey. We’ve also cut down on takeaways. If we have one, it is a treat rather than because we can’t be bothered to cook.
What happens now?
For 10 years, I’ll be monitored. I have to keep going the hospital every two months for a CA125 blood test to show my tumour markings. I also have to ensure I have my smear tests and go for an MRI once a year.
What have you learnt from this experience? And what would you want others to learn from you?
I would say just that if your body isn’t right, keep pushing with your doctor. As women, we know when something is wrong with our body. I regret not pushing sooner. After you have any form of cancer, they give you information about numbers to call and groups to go and talk to, so you can express how you’re feeling to people going through similar experiences. I didn’t do that and I went through a really low point.
I would say to friends and family, “you don’t know what I’m going through” or “you don’t understand what I’m feeling.” My friend in Kent told me, “if you say that one more time… No, we don’t know what you’re going through, but we’re trying our best. You’re not helping yourself.” That’s when I found Ovarian Cancer Action’s Facebook group. There are so many different women in the group who are going through different things.
People who are worse off than you and others who have lost people because of cancer. I would say if you are going through cancer either yourself or you know someone close to you who is, get a support system so you can help yourself or that person close to you. I didn’t want to sit in a physical group and talk about myself, but I do dip in and out of the Facebook group. You can just read and not comment or you can be present.