It took a 27-centimetre tumour in Tracey Wilson’s stomach for her to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
After years of excruciating pain, being turned away from emergency rooms, and misdiagnoses, her symptoms reached a crescendo.
“As a young adult I was having pain in my abdominal area and I’d go the doctor or hospital because I was in so much pain,” Ms Wilson told nine.com.au.
“Then in 2003 I had immense pain, and I was doubled over, I was screaming.
“I went to the ER and they just told me I had a UTI and that I was constipated and treated me for that and sent me away again.”
Ms Wilson had an ultrasound, but there were no signs of any abnormalities. She was given antibiotics and a week later the pain had mostly subsided.
“I thought I needed more antibiotics… I went back to my GP and he felt around in my stomach and it ended up being a 27-centimetre tumour. I don’t know if it was there for years.”
After three years of missed signals, Ms Wilson was diagnosed with a “germ cell” ovarian cancer. She describes it as “winning the lottery of cancer”, as this strain is easy to treat with chemotherapy.
Symptoms such as abdominal discomfort, pain and bloating are common for many women, and are often associated with hormones and menstruation.
But they can sometimes be signs of something far more sinister.
These vague indicators, combined with the absence of a single accurate screening test for ovarian cancer, means by the time three quarters of women are diagnosed with the disease it has spread beyond their ovaries. And it can prove deadly.
Gynecological oncologist Dr Rhonda Farrell said women should be alert to any abnormal signs from their body, not matter their age or fitness level.
“Discomfort, pressure in the pelvis, swelling of the tummy, sometimes if there’s a lot of fluid in the tummy, some changes in bowel habit, in younger women they can get a change in their period, and sometimes just generalised tiredness,” she said.
“I generally tell women if they have those symptoms for more than two weeks without a reason then they really should go to the GP.”
She works with Australia New Zealand Gynaecological Oncology Group (ANZGOG), the national gynaecological cancer organisation for Australia and New Zealand that is conducting clinical trials to develop a single test to diagnose ovarian cancer.
Currently this test does not exist, and five women die from the disease every day in Australia and New Zealand.
“We don’t have a good screening test for ovarian cancer, so women have to be aware of symptoms,” Dr Farrell said.
Alisha Thomson was busy training to become a doctor when she started having some abdominal pain, but didn’t think much of it.
After a trip to the GP, some blood tests, abdominal ultrasounds, and a breast ultrasound after the discovery of a raised lymph node, she was given the all clear near the end of 2016.
“I was reassured by these basic tests,” Dr Thompson told nine.com.au.
“I didn’t pursue it, I was busy at work, and the tests were fine, and I just thought: ‘I don’t have time to be dealing with this’.”
But the pain came back, and Dr Thompson lost her appetite. And she started shedding weight.
She went back to the doctor and within a week had been started on chemotherapy treatment. She had low-grade ovarian cancer.
At one stage she was told the disease was so widespread that doctors couldn’t operate.
But after a positive response to a new drug, surgeons agreed to the procedure, and her ovaries and fallopian tubes were removed in April 2017.
Dr Thomson has just gone back to work full-time, and has shifted her focus towards medical education and working with junior doctors.
Ms Wilson responded well to treatment, too.
But years later, when Ms Wilson had a daughter and was trying for a second child, doctors found her cancer had returned.
Since then she has regular tests every three to six months, and they are “so far so good”.
Ms Wilson and Dr Thomson are taking part in ANZGOG’s Survivors Teaching Students program to raise awareness of the problem.
“The signs of ovarian cancer are so vague, we do need increased awareness even in the medical profession,” Dr Thomson said.
WomenCan, which launched this month, is the brand-new-face for gynaecological cancer fundraising and is a part of the Australia New Zealand Gynaecological Oncology Group (ANZGOG). Its mission is to improve the lives of women with gynaecological cancers through fundraising for ANZGOG’s research.