Not just an OLD WOMAN'S DISEASE
On August 7 1992, Mona Vale local Fiona Vescio was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She was just 15.
"I was in Year 10, about to sit my school certificate," she tells Peninsula Living. "I felt like I was in a dream when I heard the big 'C word'. I thought 'Not me, I'm too young to have ovarian cancer. This is an old lady's disease."
Going to the GP with flu symptoms, the teenager felt uncomfortable telling a male doctor about her abdominal bloating and discomfort, which she put down to period pain. She had also lost control of her bladder while walking home from school one day, but had been too embarrassed to tell anyone.
After examining her stomach, the doctor assumed she must be pregnant. "I'd never had sex," Fiona says. She was sent for an ultrasound immediately, which revealed a large growth on her right ovary.
Admitted to hospital that night, Fiona's swollen tummy "got bigger and bigger by the hour". The tumour on her right ovary measured 25cm by 12cm.
"They operated on me the next day and they had to remove my entire right ovary," she continues. "The tumour ruptured in theatre and fluid spread through my body. After surgery, the pathology test came back and I was told I had ovarian cancer. I had to start chemotherapy the next day and underwent several more surgeries to take biopsies of the other ovary and to remove cysts."
Despite being the leading cause of death of all gynaecological cancers, ovarian cancer is still a poorly understood disease. It often strikes without warning and in Australia, one woman dies every 10 hours from the disease.
"The key to changing these statistics and giving women a better long-term outlook is early detection," says Lucinda Nolan from the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation (OCRF). "However, no simple or effective early screening method exists - which means most women diagnosed are already in the advanced stages."
She adds, "It is important to note pap smears do not detect ovarian cancer. Early screening is needed, which can only be achieved through funded research."
Thankfully, Fiona's treatment was a success and 25 years after her diagnosis, she continues to be cancer-free. She has yearly ultrasounds to check her remaining ovary as a precaution, but defied the odds to naturally conceive sons Dominic, six, and Charlie, four.
"I am very thankful and lucky to be here today with a wonderful, loving husband and two healthy, miracle children," says the 40 year old. "I want to give hope to other young women battling the disease because the impact on my fertility was always on my mind."
Being diagnosed with any kind of cancer at such a young age was obviously terrifying for both Fiona and her family -and it was made more difficult by the fact they were given very little support or guidance.
"I felt like no-one truly understood what I was going through. I felt like a freak," she admits. "There was a camp for teenagers with cancer but I wasn't well enough to go on those. Instead, I was put on a ward with all the older women dying from ovarian cancer. It was horrible."
These days, Fiona is a proud campaigner for OCRF, which provides support and raises awareness of the symptoms to the community - in particular, the fact ovarian cancer can occur in young women.
"I recently heard of a nine year old being diagnosed and it made my heart sink," adds Fiona. "It brought back all the raw feelings and emotions that myself and my family experienced. I'm trying to get in touch with this family to give them hope and support - something I didn't have access to during my battle."
Through its research, OCRF's goal is to ensure an early detection test becomes as readily available as a pap smear or mammogram.
"I'm one of the lucky ones to have survived this disease," says Fiona. "It's always been perceived as a post-menopausal cancer, which it generally is, but I want people to understand that ovarian cancer is not just something that affects older women - it can happen to anyone and, without early screening, more lives will be lost. I yearn for the day an early detection test for ovarian cancer is developed - and one for all cancers."