My Grandma's Fight With Cancer Is Saving My Life
August 2017, just as I was having a glass of wine at Birmingham Airport and waiting to board my flight to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania I received a phone call that left my heart in pieces. My grandma had been diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer. I burst into tears. I was flying back home on godmother duties for my niece’s dedication and I was full of excitement but this moment was now replaced with tears and asking the universe 21 questions throughout the journey.
It had only been five years since my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer; a disease she fought hard but eventually lost the battle to in November 2013. Now here I was, about to relive the experience of watching another loved one facing the same journey and it had to be ovarian cancer AGAIN!
Seeing my grandma when I got to Dar was a relief. She was so full of faith and ready to give cancer a good fight with all the energy she had. My grandma was someone who believed in finding good and staying positive in the midst of storms. She was and will always be one of the strongest human beings I have ever known.
I spent the months after returning from Tanzania researching cancer and genetics. At this point, I had to face the bitter truth, that ‘ovarian cancer runs in my maternal family’. Cancer is not usually inherited but some types – mainly breast, ovarian and prostate cancer can be strongly influenced by genes and can run in families. For those who like me who come from a family with a history of either breast or ovarian cancer, a genetic test is usually done to determine if you are a carrier of a faulty BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.
Having a faulty BRCA gene can significantly increase your risk of developing both breast and ovarian cancer, with women with the faulty BRCA1 gene having a 60 to 85% lifetime risk of breast cancer and a 40 to 60% risk of ovarian cancer. In other words, out of every 100 women with the faulty BRCA1 gene between 60 and 85 will develop breast cancer in their lifetime and between 40 and 60 will develop ovarian cancer.
"I know I will be able to go to sleep at night knowing that my future self will thank me"
Although ovarian cancer is most common in women over 50, it can also affect younger women, with the symptoms often misdiagnosed as other common conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It also has the lowest survival rate out of all gynaecological cancers. If you experience symptoms such as persistent bloating; needing to wee more often; feeling full easily; back pain or stomach pain you should make an appointment to see your GP as soon as possible.
After being referred to the Clinical Genetics team, discussions on what the test meant, and the options I had should I test positive or negative followed. It was a long and emotional journey and halfway through the process, a part of me was not even sure I wanted to go ahead with the testing, whilst the other part of me was certain this is what I wanted. The decision to go for a genetic testing was not an easy one to make, but as someone who is always trying to raise awareness about ovarian cancer, I had to practice what I preach.
Sadly, my grandma lost her fight to ovarian cancer in October 2018, however her fight is currently saving my life and regardless of what my BRCA status turns out to be when I get my results in 2019, I know I will be able to go to bed and sleep at night knowing that my future self will thank me. Both, my mother’s and grandma’s fight with ovarian cancer have taught me about the importance of listening to your body and that living with the truth is better than living in fear of the unknown. As Angelina Jolie once said, “My kids will never have to say ‘mom died of ovarian cancer.’”
Dear ladies, educate yourself on your family history, know what is normal for your body and learn to listen to your body. Being aware of your history and knowing the symptoms at an early stage can help you to take the necessary precautions to manage your risk and reduce the stress of the unknown, including the possibility of passing on a faulty BRCA gene to your kids.
I’m grateful to live in a country that gives me access to various cancer prevention tools, which is not the case for many women in other parts of the world with limited genetics testing, resources or the financial burden if you are not eligible to have a BRCA test done under the NHS.
I dream of a future where no woman dies of ovarian cancer and I hope more women, particularly young women with family histories like mine, will learn more about hereditary cancers and take the necessary precautions."
To understand and find out if your family history puts you at risk of ovarian or breast cancer, visit Hereditary Cancer Risk Tool.