It’s easy to think of gynaecological cancer as a disease that affects older women. But the truth is, it can strike at any age. Alisha was 27, with the world at her feet. She had great friends and was training to become a psychiatrist. Everything was falling into place. Until her young life was shattered by a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
Alisha’s story is saddening. However, it shows the importance of the research done by the Australia New Zealand Gynaecological Oncology Group (ANZGOG), which WomenCan supports.
Alisha’s symptoms began with baffling abdominal pains. Standard tests showed nothing abnormal. So, she put it down to stress and carried on with her busy life as per usual. But unfortunately, the pain worsened.
“I thought I was going crazy and I didn’t want to whinge. I regret now that I wasn’t honest with myself about how bad it was.”
Consequently, Alisha began to experience nausea, which resulted in weight loss. She didn’t want to make a fuss, but eventually, she couldn’t ignore her symptoms any more. Her GP arranged more specific tests, including a transvaginal ultrasound and CT scan. As Alisha was preparing for a girls’ weekend away, the call she was dreading came: she needed to visit her GP immediately.
“There’s no easy way to deliver bad news, but my doctor was amazing. She was empathetic; she went through it all slowly and made me call my mum. I tried not to cry, but I did.”
Alisha had Stage 4, low grade, serous ovarian cancer, or LGSC. There were spots in her abdomen, lymph nodes and breasts, as well as fluid in her lungs. She soon learned LGSC is often diagnosed in younger women – some, like her, in their 20s.
Despite the overwhelming situation, Alisha decided to focus on the positives in her life. After 10 months of chemotherapy along with keyhole surgery to remove her ovaries, fallopian tubes and visible tumours, she was back at work. She even celebrated her 28th birthday by skydiving!
Alisha’s great response to chemotherapy astonished her doctors. Her treatment plan is focussed on keeping her stable as long as possible.
“Life started getting back to normal, but I knew there would be a point where it would come to an end.”
ANZGOG is searching for better treatments for women with the same diagnosis as Alisha. LGSC is a rare ovarian cancer that can affect much younger women. The term ‘low-grade’ makes it sound like it’s not serious, but this form of cancer often develops resistance to chemotherapy. Unfortunately, treatment options are quite limited for most women and prognosis is not promising.
ANZGOG member, Professor Anna DeFazio, is leading the way in researching LGSC and making exciting progress. Genetic and molecular changes that drive the cancer are being uncovered, which will help clinicians devise new, targeted treatments, and give women the care that they require.
Eventually, Alisha had to take a leave from work and begin chemotherapy again. Her own experience inspired her to devote her time to raising funds for ANZGOG’s cancer research and creating awareness in her local community. Alisha’s admirable efforts raised over $25,000 to date and her great hope is that she will see improved treatments during her lifetime.
Alisha’s advice for other women:
“Listen to your body, trust your instincts and look after your health.”
Although she doesn’t know what the future holds, Alisha doesn’t put off the things that are important to her any more, like travel and spending time with her loved ones. In late 2018, she drove around the South Island of New Zealand by herself – a trip she never would have contemplated prior to her diagnosis. Alisha says that her cancer diagnosis has made her feel stronger.
Women like Alisha are truly inspiring and our researchers and clinicians are determined to continue searching for better answers for them. Innovative clinical trials like ours push us closer towards understanding what drives their diseases and discovering safer, more effective ways to treat them.