In 2021, Jo was a healthy 42-year-old living an active lifestyle in Noosa, Queensland. She had recently moved from Sydney, where she had been working as a video and digital producer across several big-name brands. During a routine cervical cancer screening test (which does not screen for ovarian cancer), Jo’s doctor spotted an abnormality.
“My GP assured me that while it was likely nothing serious, she recommended I go for further testing, just as a precautionary measure. I was thinking my worst-case scenario could be a diagnosis of endometriosis,” said Jo.
After undergoing an ultrasound, Jo’s results showed a mass on each ovary. To her shock, further testing revealed elevated levels of a protein in Jo’s blood that indicated a possible ovarian cancer diagnosis.
“The only accurate way to diagnose ovarian cancer is through surgery and a biopsy, however my outlook wasn’t looking good. After I received my results, I was referred to the Royal Women’s Hospital in Brisbane for surgery.
“One moment I was having a routine test, the next I was undergoing a full hysterectomy, including the removal of my uterus and both my ovaries,” said Jo.
The surgery sent Jo into early menopause. Afterwards, she was put on Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) to compensate for some of the hormones her ovaries used to produce, easing the symptoms.
“While I never wanted kids, the realisation that I was about to have my last period was confronting. If I had wanted children, the whole process would have been incredibly traumatic,” said Jo.
“The scariest thing was that I had this thing growing inside me and I hadn’t noticed any symptoms. Looking back, I now recognise that feeling full after eating a small amount, needing to go to the toilet more often and painful sex were all minor symptoms that I was experiencing, but ovarian cancer just wasn’t something on my radar,” Jo said.
After surgery Jo was told that her biospy had revealed that her tumours were borderline and not cancerous.
“I felt so relieved that my doctor had picked up on them so early. I hate to think what might have happened if they’d been left any longer,” said Jo. Following her diagnosis, Jo felt relief and was ready to move one. However, three weeks later, she was told that her surgeons had found cancerous cells in her omentum and she would need to start chemotherapy.
“I’m generally an optimistic person, but each time I went back to my doctors, it kept getting worse and worse. I was in complete disbelief. Most people think cancer is something that won’t happen to them, myself included. I just felt numb,” said Jo.
Jo's side effects from chemotherapy included peripheral neuropathy in her toes (weakness and pain from nerve damage), extreme fatigue, UTIs, nosebleeds, weight gain and trouble sleeping. However, Jo said it was the mental impact that affected her the most.
“I continue to experience a lot of trauma around my diagnosis. If I feel an ache anywhere in my body, I’m convinced its life threatening. I’m better at managing the anxiety now, but it’s still lingering,” said Jo.
When initially diagnosed, Jo reached out to Ovarian Cancer Australia for support.
“I was fully panicking when I was first put in touch with my ovarian cancer support nurse, Katherine. She was able to calmly talk me through my diagnosis and advocate for me. She gave me a sense of empowerment over my situation,” said Jo.
Jo also took advantage of Ovarian Cancer Australia’s other free services, including their exercise physiologist, dietician and sexual health clinician.
“I knew nothing about ovarian cancer before my diagnosis. There’s such a stigma around this disease. As women, we’re often taught to just ignore pain and push through. It's not good enough,” said Jo.
Please note, cervical cancer screening tests (or pap tests/smears) do not screen for ovarian cancer. There are no effective screening or early detection tests for ovarian cancer.
A CA125 test can look for a protein found in the blood that may be produced by ovarian cancer cells. However, there are other causes for raised CA125 levels such as menstruation, endometroisis or benign ovarian cysts. For this reason, it is not an effective screening test for ovarian cancer.