Ovarian cancer is the deadliest cancer that can affect women. Photo / SuppliedStomach pain is an easy symptom to dismiss, especially among young people, and it was not something Chloe Spitalnic was worried about when she first experienced it one morning last year.
The 22-year-old is lactose and fructose intolerant, so she thought the pain was related to her digestion. But after six days of on-and-off pain, the Melbourne resident was encouraged by her mum and sister to see a GP as they thought it might be an ovarian cyst, which is quite common.
“I wasn’t bothered by it,” Chloe told news.com.au, even when her GP suggested she get an ultrasound.
“I just thought, okay cool, whatever.”
But later Chloe got a call from a different GP, telling her they thought there was something there.
“They said they thought it was cancerous, I was shocked,” she said.
“I remember crying, and my dad was there.
“There was no family history of cancer and I had never been exposed to anyone with cancer.”
Due to Melbourne’s stage 4 lockdown, Chloe was told to go to emergency to get more scans done.
“My mum wasn’t allowed to come with me, I was doing test after test and they kept saying the words ‘cancer’ and ‘chemo’. I was freaking out,” she said.
Six days after seeing her GP, Chloe was in hospital for surgery.
“My parents had to leave me at the door and I had never been in hospital before, it was really scary,” Chloe said.
“I spent six days by myself with no flowers or visitors because of Covid.
“The night before I was discharged, my surgeon said it was stage three cancer and I was in hysterics and crying,” she said.
Chloe was diagnosed with low grade serous cancer, a rare type of ovarian cancer. At first she was confused because she had received the HPV vaccine at school, but she later realised this only protected her against cervical cancer.
“Ovarian cancer is a poorly known cancer and mostly impacts older women,” Chloe said.
“But as in my case, it can affect younger women too.”
Ovarian cancer is the deadliest cancer among women but Ovarian Cancer Australia (OCA) says but it is also the most underfunded cancer in Australia.
Currently only 46 per cent of women diagnosed will survive past five years.
The majority of women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer at an advanced stage, largely because signs and symptoms are vague and are commonly experienced by many women. A lack of an effective screening test also makes early diagnosis difficult.
However, there is hope that researchers are close to finding a cure, partly because of developments in gene sequencing that has lead to the identification of drug treatments for specific mutations.
Leading ovarian cancer researcher Professor David Bowtell of Victoria’s Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre said one of the most dramatic changes to treatment had been the development of PARP inhibitors to target gene mutations that cause certain types of ovarian cancer.
Interestingly, DNA research has found mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, which are known to cause breast cancer, can also be responsible for ovarian cancer.
“So triple negative breast cancer is more similar to high grade serous ovarian cancer than other breast cancers,” Bowtell said.
Bowtell said gene sequencing had allowed scientists to understand the underlying biology of specific cancers and this is what determined what drugs worked, not what organ or body part they were located in.
While progress is being made, more work is needed.
Chloe said having access to a specialist nurse had helped her as she was able to talk through her fears and issues with the nurse.
“I was reading a lot of articles online about women dying and I would ring her and she would keep me grounded,” Chloe said.
“Not everything is true that you read.”
Luckily for Chloe, her chemo worked and she is hoping to enjoy a healthy future. She wants to help more women, especially young women, to be more aware of ovarian cancer and its symptoms.
“I think one of the biggest issues is that it is an area of the body that we tend to be very private about,” she said.
“This is our body and we have to be open with our friends and try to share about it.
“You can close your eyes and pretend you’re not reading about it, but it’s happening.”
She said women also needed to know and understand their own bodies.
“If something seems abnormal, try not to keep dismissing it,” she said.
“It’s better to be safe than sorry, so get something checked.
“It’s about surviving and living your life.”