VICKI Wilson shows a defiance in her smile.
She refuses to be scared of death, or let cancer rule her life. Ms Wilson has directly faced down cancer multiple times. She says she knows it will likely kill her but, near the end, she will have a good idea when.
Even so, ovarian cancer caught Ms Wilson by surprise. Doctors stumbled on it, really. There were no indications how long it had been lingering.
Ms Wilson credits a return to her hometown Ballarat for saving her life and keeping her alive the past seven years.
A vigilant Ms Wilson had undergone breast screenings since her early 20s, after her mother was diagnosed and later died with breast cancer.
It was in an army medical in 1990, a lump in Ms Wilson’s breast was detected and found to be cancer. Twenty-three years later, well after being told she was in the clear, Ms Wilson’s breast cancer returned.
When genetic testing confirmed she had the BRAC1 gene, putting her at increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer, Ms Wilson chose a double mastectomy and ovary removal - uncovering ovarian cancer in its early stages.
“I’d just moved back to Ballarat and to the credit of St John of God and Lake Imaging, they found a spot so small,” Ms Wilson said.
“After being in a big city, all the medical services in Ballarat treat you like a person. I’m so grateful because I probably wouldn’t be here now, had they not taken the extra care in my case.”
Ms Wilson was in the clear for three years before the ovarian cancer returned in 2016. Her body will never be completely rid of ovarian cancer, but her genetics and good response to chemotherapy allows Ms Wilson to take a maintenance drug in a bid to keep the cancer at bay.
“Getting told you have cancer is scary. We all deal in our own way. I didn’t ever think of it as a death sentence,” Ms Wilson said.
“I think the only times I’ve been really worried about it was sitting in (Dr Craig Carden’s) waiting room, wanting to know what was going on.
“...I’ve been hanging in. The years have flicked over, but I’ve never thrown in the towel.”
Ms Wilson chooses to focus her energies on living well. She supports others affected by cancer to follow suit, openly sharing her journey as the lolly-trolley lady in the St John of God oncology ward, and in support group Cancer Chicks at Ballarat Regional Integrated Cancer Centre.
Telling her story seems to help offer hope on their own cancer journey.
Much has changed since Ms Wilson was first diagnosed almost 30 years ago. Doctors rang her office to say her test was in the clear, celebrations ensued until the doctor rang back to say he had mixed up paperwork.
Ms Wilson would travel from Bendigo, where she was based, to Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne. Often radiotherapy machines would break down, leaving Ms Wilson to become a regular at the cinema while machines were fixed.
In Ballarat, Ms Wilson appreciates feeling welcomed and a familiarity among the wards, rather than just a number.
Ms Wilson was also aware other women, particularly single women, might feel less comfortable and unsure of strong support available in Ballarat. Cancer Chicks, which she founded with a friend, aims to ensure no woman slips through the cracks.
“A lot of people won’t ask if they need help. We want them to be aware they can reach out,” Ms Wilson said. “We’re happy to take people to appointments or to do their shopping. We don’t want anyone to feel alone with cancer.”
Ms Wilson is resolute on maintaining a positive outlook on life. Right now, life is “as normal as it could ever get” with her drugs, six-weekly check-ups, blood tests and PET scans.
Goals are set and re-set. Ms Wilson is set to turn 60 then aims to reach 63 – the age her mum was when she died with cancer.
Now both retired, Ms Wilson and her husband can travel to far and exotic places.
As a keen golfer, Ms Wilson has also been chipping at life goals on the greens: a hole-in-one, a monthly medal and a round at St Andrews.
“If anything can come from my story it is don’t ever give up,” Ms Wilson said. “Stay positive – you’ve got to do what you can.
“People have also got to be vigilant. Too often women with breast cancer tell me they found a lump they noticed a year or so before they got it checked, then it’s become advanced. If you think something is wrong, persist.
“I was lucky, in the sense my ovarian cancer was found by accident.”
February is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Every day in Australia, four women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and three will die from the disease.
Ovarian Cancer Australia’s tips to be ‘ovary-aware’
1. Ovarian cancer has the lowest survival rate of any women’s cancer and has a five-year survival rate well below the average for all cancers
2. In Australia, the overall five-year survival rate for women diagnosed with ovarian cancer is 45 per cent. In comparison, the overall five-year survival rate for women diagnosed with breast cancer is 90 per cent.
3. In 2019, about 1600 Australian women are expected to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and it is estimated that more than 1,000 will die from the disease – one woman every eight hours
4. Each day in Australia, four women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and three will die from the disease.
5. If diagnosed in its early stages, women have an 80 per cent chance of being alive and well after five years but 75 per cent of women are diagnosed at an advanced stage, when the cancer has spread.
6. There is no early detection test for ovarian cancer so the best way of detecting the disease is to know and recognise the common symptoms, which include: abdominal or pelvic pain, persistent abdominal bloating, the need to urinate often or urgently, or feeling full after eating a small amount.
7. Research undertaken by Ovarian Cancer Australia in last year showed nearly one in three Australians do not know the difference between ovarian cancer and cervical cancer. More than 70 per cent of Australians do not know, or incorrectly believe, Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) Vaccine protects against ovarian cancer. More than 50 per cent of Australians still incorrectly believe that a cervical screening can detect ovarian cancer.
8. Genetics and family history are responsible for up to 17 per cent of incidences of ovarian cancer. This tends to be a result of an inherited faulty gene (BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation) that increases a woman’s risk of developing both ovarian and breast cancers.
9. A woman is considered to have a family history of ovarian cancer if: she has a first degree relative diagnosed with breast cancer at an age younger than 50 years; she has a first degree relative diagnosed with ovarian cancer at any age; she has a combination of two or more first degree relatives with breast or ovarian cancer; or she has a male first degree relative diagnosed with breast cancer at any age.
10. The BRCA1 and BRCA 2 gene mutations can increase a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer from a few per cent in the general Australian population to 59 per cent for BRCA1 and 17per cent for BRCA2. The mutations are also linked to the occurrence of breast, prostate, pancreatic cancers and haematological malignancies. These are largely preventable by the uptake of risk reducing strategies.
11. These faulty BRCA gene mutations can be inherited from either the mother or father’s side, with a 50 per cent chance that an individual with a BRCA mutation passes this on to each of their children.
12. There are approximately 25,000 known patients harbouring a pathogenic BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation in Australia
13. Ovarian cancer most commonly affects women aged over 50 who have been through menopause but the disease can affect females of all ages.
14. The cause of ovarian cancer is unknown. Risk factors women should be aware of include: being over 50 years of age; never having children, being unable to have children, or having children after 30; never having used oral contraceptives; having endometriosis; and, lifestyle factors like smoking and weight.
15. Latest research shows that ovarian cancer is not just one disease but a collection of diseases with different characteristics, behaviours and molecular structures.
16. Family history is not the only indicator for the presence of a BRCA mutation. Large ovarian cancer studies estimate that around 50 per cent of patients who have a cancer-causing mutation have no reported significant family history of breast or ovarian cancer.
17. There has been no significant change in treatment options for women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer since the 1970s.
18. Ovarian Cancer Australia is the only ovarian cancer organisation that provides direct support services for women and their families living with ovarian cancer in Australia.
19. Government funding for ovarian cancer has halved in comparison to 10 years ago.
- Ovarian Cancer Australia