This week I had an email reminding me it is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Week in March and to prepare for fundraising events and this brought to mind the tale of a dear aunt.
It was Easter 1969 when my aunt who was diagnosed with carcinoma of the ovary. She was the head teacher of a challenging junior school in Dagenham and aware of the surplus energy many of her pupils had and as no-one had volunteered to teach football she had decided to take on the task. However, that did create some problems as she was a Roman Catholic nun Sister Mary Ursula, who wore a full length habit and a stiffly starched headdress as seen in the comedy Sister Act!
I had only seen her when we as a family visited London as she was not allowed to stay anywhere other than a convent. We always had great fun as children when we visited as she always managed to produce a special meal usually afternoon tea and we were allowed to explore the convent grounds play with the animals they kept as well as have a singsong or dance to popular songs around the piano. We also helped to serve soup to the unusual people who came to the back door. I was always puzzled by these visitors but despite being as inquisitive as usual I never got any satisfactory answers to why these people came.
She had been to see her team play in the schools cup final and was overjoyed that they had won. She had run up and down the pitch cheering them on like any other football coach but in full nuns habit!
Unfortunately, shortly after this she was admitted to hospital with pneumonia and incidentally found to have advanced Ovarian Carcinoma. She like many others showed very little in the way of symptoms.
Coincidentally, I had applied to do voluntary work in Dr. Barnado’s children’s home in Barkingside, Essex, helping with spins bifida children who had been taken into care and was accepted. They provided free accommodation and meals and this gave a country girl a chance to be able to explore London. What’s more I would be near Upton Park Hospital where she was having frequent admissions for treatment.
It wasn’t long before she made her mark there with frequent colourful visitors ranging from high ranking priests to ex-pupils. There was never a dull moment especially as she took it upon herself to visit the male wards (bearing in mind that in those days many patients were in hospital for weeks on end) equipped with mouth organ to orchestrate singalongs usually the old cockney pub songs or football songs especially as she was a keen West Ham supporter!
Needless to say it was appropriate that she was the first person I told when I received my A level results and full acceptance to Medical school. Sadly she died the day I left to go home to prepare to start my career in medicine. This was my first experience of being with someone so ill and eventually dying. She was only 41yrs of age and died within months of being diagnosed. She was so open about how she felt and what gave her the most comfort. Her insights, her humour and her fears along with her many words of wisdom formed a good base as I embarked on my medical training.
It is sad that even after 45yrs only 3% of women can very confidently pick out a symptom
The disease is the fifth most common cause of cancer deaths in women and experts fear the lack of awareness may contribute to low survival rates in the UK compared with elsewhere.
We as doctors are increasing our awareness and vigilance about investigating women when presenting with suspicious symptoms. We need you to come to us if you have suspicious symptoms.