Lisa's Story, by Aimee & Mitch

The following day, the gravity of the situation was brought into sharp focus by a close friend, a nurse, who called us out on our naivety and began to explain just how lethal ovarian cancer is.

In March 2022 we lost our mum, Lisa, to ovarian cancer.

Mum had only been diagnosed in November of 2019, and so it was a short and ever so devastating battle with the ‘beast’, as we called it. It was also one that we mostly watched from afar, as COVID lockdowns and border closures cruelly kept us apart – mum in Perth, us in Melbourne.

Mum’s diagnosis came off the back of lower back pain, which had persisted over a couple of years alongside other menopausal symptoms. It wasn’t until the pain was intense enough to visit the emergency department that ovarian cancer was suspected.

Such was our limited, or more accurately non-existent, knowledge of ovarian cancer that when mum told us about her diagnosis, we both shrugged it off, assuming it to be like the other cancers we’d come to know through friends, family, and the media. Breast, prostate, bowel cancers – we knew survivability was high and treatment options excellent, so we assumed mum’s journey would be the same. Surgery, treatments, recovery, and remission. Surviving cancer these days is more the norm than the exception, or so we thought. We gave mum some suitable words of encouragement, dusted ourselves off and carried on with our respective days.

The following day, the gravity of the situation was brought into sharp focus by a close friend, a nurse, who called us out on our naivety and began to explain just how lethal ovarian cancer is.

To say we were shocked was an understatement.

With a stage 3c diagnosis, the cancer was advanced and therefore surviving beyond five years was just a 29% chance.

We quickly learned how limited and dated treatments for ovarian cancer are and braced ourselves for the rollercoaster ride ahead.

Mum’s first course of treatment was a combination of chemo and immunotherapy, part of a clinical trial to understand if this mix of treatments would be more successful than chemo alone. She underwent three roundsof this before debulking surgery, an extremely full-on operation comprising a full hysterectomy and removal of all visible cancer.

Shortly after surgery, we were informed that the immunotherapy component wasn’t successful, and she was taken off this trial. Whilst disappointed, Mum was so grateful to have been involved in research that will hopefully help someone else’s ovarian cancer journey. We were so proud of her selfless attitude.

A further three rounds of chemo followed the surgery and after this, the news we wanted to hear – no further treatment required, at least for the time being. It was a relief, because by now the Victorian COVID lockdowns had well and truly kicked in and we were stuck in Melbourne.

The reprieve was short lived, mum’s cancer returned just six months later. It was a routine check-up that produced rising CA125 tumor marker results and raised the alarm. After this recurrence mum endured various treatments – chemo combos, drug trials and the like – and many an emergency trip to the ED with bowel obstructions, a common condition for women with ovarian cancer.

The current five year survival rate for all cancers is 70%. Ovarian cancer remains below 50%.

She was so fiercely determined, though, that ovarian cancer wasn’t going to defeat her, mum did an ocean swim every morning to keep fit and rode in the MACA Cancer 200 Ride for Research in November 2021. Riding a huge 200km and raising more than $15,000 to support cancer researchers at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in Perth. It was another demonstration to us of how selfless she was in her desire to help others facing a cancer diagnosis.

Supporting mum through this from the other side of the country was so difficult. Our video calls were always so positive, her updates delivered with great optimism. In hindsight, it probably gave us a false sense that things were tracking well and there was hope that she’d eventually recover. There’s no doubt in our minds now that playing the bad things down and dialing up the positives was mum’s way of protecting us from fully understanding how grim it can be living with ovarian cancer.

Complications flared again around the Christmas of 2021. Mum was put on oxygen, and we were informed that the cancer had spread to her kidneys and lungs. We desperately awaited news of borders re-opening and in February were able to fly home to see her for just the second time in two years.

It was the most precious few weeks, as we spent maximum time with mum and our family before she passed away at the end of March. Her health declined quickly in the end, but right up until the last few days she was still showing a fierce determination to get better and live life fully.

It’s still so difficult to comprehend how far behind in detection and treatment ovarian cancer is, especially when compared with other cancers.

We have come to learn that with early detection, mum would likely have had her cancer diagnosed in early stages and her chance of survival would have been more than 90%. But with no early detection test, and such vague symptoms, picking it up early is almost impossible.

Our hope is for significantly increased funding from Australia’s biggest philanthropists, which quickly accelerates research progress to find early detection methods and improved treatments. It would be nice to think that sons and daughters receiving news of their mum’s ovarian cancer diagnosis in the future really can shrug it off because survivability sits alongside those other cancers in the 90th percentile.

The need is urgent. The time is now. Support Ovarian Cancer Socks to invest in critical cancer research so that diagnosis is no longer a death sentence for those who develop the disease.

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