Power in purpose

18 Aug 2021

Allergic to chemo but determined to survive for her grandchildren, Jenny Stone is overcoming the odds and is now putting ovarian cancer in New Zealand’s spotlight.

In a room full of medical students, Jenny pushes nerves aside to talk about intimate details of her ovarian cancer journey, like vaginal bleeding. She knows there’s a bigger picture - lives are at stake.

Jenny was among the first to join Survivors Teaching Students (STS) in Australia, educating future medical professionals on the keys to supporting women and their families through gynaecological cancer.

“You need a purpose and this is now mine,” Jenny said. “Right from diagnosis I’ve wanted to help other women, so they don’t have to go through what I’m going through.

It’s never about criticism, only how we can improve on experiences and sharing why so many doctors make a positive impact.

They know their patient, pay attention, are proactive and go that extra mile because it’s our lives in their hands, through diagnosis, treatment and recurrence.”

Looking across the Tasman, she’s advocating for STS to roll out in New Zealand, where ovarian cancer survival rates are even lower than Australia’s.

Approx. 1000 New Zealand women are diagnosed with a gynaecological cancer every year. 340 of those are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, with one woman dying every 48 hours.

“Women have their stories heard; some are hard, knowing they’re not in a good place but by the same token, their tenacity is very uplifting. Sharing these stories does make a difference and you can see the students taking it on board.”

Jenny’s journey began in 2015, far from her Queensland home on a road trip with her husband, Frank.

“At 64, I was well and truly postmenopausal when I started bleeding heavily, so we were both really concerned,” Jenny recalled.

Fortunately, her trusted GP had blood tests and a gynaecologist visit for scans booked in before they’d even pulled up in their driveway.

“I was on the train with my daughter-in-law going to her ultrasound for my first grandchild, when I got the call to urgently see my gynae. That’s when everything started. We wanted to be safe not sorry, so I had a full hysterectomy. I woke up to stage 3c ovarian cancer, which had spread to my bladder and liver.”

As a former maths teacher, Jenny knew statistics and the odds weren’t in her favour. More than half of women with ovarian cancer don’t make it past five years in Australia.

“My gynae oncologist was amazing and said the figures don’t matter; I could be in the 46 percent who survive because of my positive attitude.

I told her I’m going to see the birth of my first grandchild and be around long enough so they remember who I am, not just through pictures.

My eldest granddaughter just turned five and we’re very close.”

Getting here wasn’t easy, especially with severe reactions to not one but four types of chemotherapy.

“I went into anaphylactic shock the moment the drugs entered my body,” Jenny said. “It was quite frightening really, being allergic to the medication I needed to save my life.

My wonderful GP referred me to an oncologist specialising in ovarian cancer and I laughed when he sat behind his desk, waving his hands and saying ‘I don’t do breasts’!

The recommended chemotherapy was known for challenging side effects but “when it comes to are you going to die or live, you take the drugs”.

On the day of first infusion, I was absolutely terrified. Doctors were hovering around, nurses, the crash cart…and nothing happened. I can’t describe the relief, finding something that would work.”

Doing vital advocacy work, ticking off travel destinations and being Grandma to beautiful grandchildren, Jenny has achieved so many goals since diagnosis. There’s a key one left…

“I’m currently trying to indoctrinate the Richmond Tigers song into my granddaughter!” she laughs.

As cuckoo and grandfather clock collectors, the hour chimes through Jenny and Frank’s home but they barely notice. As five years have melted into each other, they’ve learnt never to waste a precious moment by watching time tick by.

Personal stories like Jenny’s have the power to raise vital awareness of gynaecological cancer. Do you have a story that you would like to share with us? Contact WomenCan

Want to help women like Jenny? The Westfield Local Heroes program recognises and awards funds to community members who are doing inspiring work. You can help fund the STS program by voting for Helen Gooden, National Manager of Survivors Teaching Students, click here.