Norfolk woman fights back against ovarian cancer

Finding a lump is usually the first warning sign that you need to go to the doctors to get checked out, but for Karen Newstead the discovery of a lump in her pelvis meant that it was already too late. Emma Harrowing reports.

It makes shocking reading. Only 30pc of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer will survive five years. It's the fifth most common cancer diagnosed in women and there is a 1 in 50 chance a woman will develop this type of cancer.

However, do you know what the symptoms of ovarian cancer are?

The fact is that only a mere four per cent of us do.

As Karen Newstead, from Ingham, north Norfolk, stood in the Houses of Parliament listening to the survival rate statistics her heart wrenched. She would be lucky to be alive in five years time and all the pain, trauma and effort she had experienced would be in vain.

Karen was attending a parliamentary reception at which ovarian cancer charity Target Ovarian was lobbying MPs to help women with ovarian cancer live a longer and better life. It was here, on a sunny day in June this year, surrounded by other women with ovarian cancer, MPs, members of Target Ovarian and other health care professionals that Karen had an epiphany.

'I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in January 2009 and then told that I had secondary cancer on my bowel in October last year, and here I stood deeply shocked at what I was hearing at the parliamentary reception. It suddenly dawned on me that I was one of the women Target Ovarian is aiming to help. My life will probably be cut short and I do not want that to be the case for other women. If I had recognised my symptoms earlier my chances of survival would be much greater than they are today.'

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Karen's story of cancer is a short but sad one. Looking back she says that she had days when she felt extra tired, her bowel habits became irregular and her appetite waned but all symptoms were minor and came at a particularly stressful time in her life.

Says Karen: 'I had a stressful job, my marriage had broken down and I was coming up to 50; I thought that it was a mix of stress and the first signs of the menopause. I had gone to the doctor's and they put it down to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). I had always had problems with my bowel so to me this diagnosis made sense.

'Then I found a lump just in front of my hip bone. Again I thought that this was minor and perhaps a fibroid. When I was told that I had ovarian cancer it changed my life.'

The symptoms Karen had experienced months before were the first signs of ovarian cancer. It is common that these are overlooked or deemed to be signs of IBS.

For Karen and many others ovarian cancer is diagnosed too late. Karen underwent an extensive operation to remove her reproductive organs, she had aggressive chemotherapy treatment and lost all her hair. Then in September 2009 she was given the all-clear.

'To say that I was relieved was an understatement,' says Karen. 'I celebrated by holding a party for all my family and friends that had helped me through this difficult time and I booked a holiday to Cyprus.

'When I was away my stomach started to swell, in fact it got so large that it looked like I was in the late stages of pregnancy.'

Karen immediately returned to her GP when she was back in the UK. The results weren't good. Karen had developed tumours on her bowel and in October she was diagnosed with secondary cancer.

'My stomach had swollen due to excess fluid caused by the tumours,' says Karen. 'The doctors drained five litres of water from my stomach!'

Karen underwent another course of chemotherapy. Then last Christmas she was told the news that three months previously she thought she would never hear.

'My doctor looked at me and told me to get my matters in order as I would probably not see in the New Year,' says Karen.

'I felt like everything was moving in slow motion, and then from nowhere I had this ball of anger rise from the pit of my stomach and I thought 'no, I'll show you, I will live longer than a few weeks'.'

Ten months on and Karen looks healthier than she has done in a long while. She doesn't expect to live longer than another five years, but she has changed her diet to one that is almost vegan, she has taken up yoga and Reiki in a bid to make her body as strong and as healthy as she possibly can.

After the light bulb went on in Karen's head while she stood in the Houses of Parliament, the idea to inform women about the signs of ovarian cancer so that they can get diagnosed as soon as possible gradually bore fruit.

Last month Karen launched Think Early at the Think Pink Ball at Sprowston Manor, near Norwich.

Says Karen: 'The aim of Think Early is to get everyone from women to medical professionals to recognise the symptoms of ovarian cancer.

'If women are diagnosed early they have a 90pc chance of survival. If it is caught late this percentage falls to just a 10pc survival rate.

'There is also a test that you can request if you suspect that you have the symptoms of ovarian cancer – a TVU scan and a CA125 blood test.'

Karen is working closely with charity Target Ovarian and plans to talk at a number of women's groups throughout Norfolk in order to raise awareness of the symptoms of ovarian cancer.

'Knowing that just by diagnosing this cancer early will save many lives is spurring me on to spread the Think Early message,' says Karen. 'I don't want anyone to go through what I am going through, especially when it can be prevented.'