Katherine Brown was a regular, healthy 22-year-old starting her adult life as a bubbly teacher when she started to feel sick. With no history of ovarian cancer in her family, the thought of being diagnosed with the often-fatal disease was furthest from her mind. That was until a 20cm tumour was found on her right ovary. To highlight the importance of Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month (happening in February) Katherine shares her story of survival with POPSUGAR Australia.
I was 22 years old, it was 2009 and I had just graduated from university and started my teaching career. I was really healthy and I exercised a lot, however throughout the year I noticed I was gaining a lot of weight around my abdomen, I was always tired, I was never hungry but always full and I had constant back pain — I just knew something was wrong, but I couldn't quite work it out.
Many times I went to my GP and was flat-out told that my concerns were all normal symptoms for a normal, young, 22-year-old.
Looking back they were all very vague symptoms. So I continued on with my life dealing with the same symptoms for about another month. Then one night things took a turn for the worst. I couldn't breathe properly and my stomach was distended it looked like I was about nine months pregnant, I was rushed by helicopter to the Brisbane Mater Hospital.
When I got to hospital the staff were mesmerised by me, I think it was because I was so young. They took a blood test and straight away they knew it was cancer but didn't know what kind. They waited four days before I was operated on and it wasn't until during surgery they found a 20cm tumour attached to my right ovary. The tumour had grown to that size in a month, it was the size of a baby. What worked in my favour was that it was all intact. It was a stage one cancer but the type of tumour I had was immature teratoma — the one that usually affects young girls in their teens — I probably had it for many years before I started presenting symptoms. The surgeons removed the tumour along with my right ovary and five days later I started intense chemotherapy to catch any spots left in my abdomen. They had to tell me many times that I had ovarian cancer because I was in shock at the news, but I think my parents had it harder than me. Seeing their young daughter so helpless would have been the worst.
It took me until the end of chemo to realise I had cancer and this was actually happening.
My chemo was designed with curative intent, the doctors always had a goal that it would be cured with chemo. I had it every day for 12 weeks — it was intense. My treatment ran over Christmas and New Year, which was a big eye opener for me. I had long, light-brown hair and I looked healthy but as soon as the chemo started I lost my hair and looked very sick. I was in denial for the first three weeks thinking, 'No, no, I'm really strong, I'm really healthy.' But as soon as my hair started falling out I started to look how I felt. The doctors would often tell me which days I would feel sick and then which days I'd be feeling tired from the chemo so I could kind of plan my life around how I'd be feeling. This made life tricky, but it was my priority to get better so I made sure I followed the doctor's orders and kept on keeping on. I had great chemo doctors and my family with me during the whole ordeal.
Throughout the chemo process I was having regular scans and blood tests to monitor how the treatment was going. I had to have lots of blood transfusions because chemo kills all the bad cells along with the good and I had to be really careful with my immune system.
One thing they don't tell you when you get cancer is that you have no control.
In my mind I was constantly telling myself 'I want to be well, I want to be doing things!' but most of the time you just can't, and that was really quite hard for me. I was always so healthy and busy and I wanted to have the same life I had before cancer but I just physically couldn't keep that up. I always found myself wondering 'Why? Why me? There's no family history of ovarian cancer, I'm a healthy person so why did this have to happen to me?'
There were a couple of times I'd read the statistics and did a lot of reading and research about the survival rates — which aren't very good — and reading this got me down quite a lot. But my doctors kept reminding me that everyone is unique and everyone responds differently to treatment. It was hard but I tried to remain as positive as I could.
I learnt so much about fertility (and cancer) throughout this. As soon as I had my operation, half of my eggs were lost. My surgeon was very aware of my age and how important it was to preserve my fertility because that was a big thing for me. I wanted to freeze eggs before I started chemo but I was told that I had to choose between my life and freezing my eggs because there was no time, I needed to start chemo straight away. Instead I decided to freeze some eggs after chemo, once I was well again. With half of my eggs still fully intact I've been through a full IVF cycle to freeze some eggs. You only need one egg to create a baby so hopefully I've done everything I can.
In 2014 I received the remission news — my doctor said I now have the same chance now of getting ovarian cancer as any other woman would, which is great! But I still go for regular blood tests and scans. The first five years after chemo it was tests every three months, then every six months and now it's annually.
To this day, any time I go for tests I get very nervous.
Often when you walk through the corridors and you go to get your scans all the memories come back. Any time I put on weight or feel tired or have a sore back I automatically think something's not right — that's taking me a while to get over. I try not to think about it, but the symptoms are very vague and common so it's very hard to think otherwise.
Everything in my life is now back to normal, I've stayed in Brisbane since being sick, and I'm teaching a lovely Grade 4 class, I've bought my first house, I go on lots of holidays and I'm living life again! I look like my normal self now, only my hair grew back a little curlier. I have a different attitude and view on the world now, if something doesn't feel right I let my opinion be heard. I exercise a lot, walk plenty and eat healthily.
As women we know our bodies best, and we need to be talking amongst our friends and with our doctors because if something doesn't feel right then it probably isn't right — basically until there's a test, awareness is best! My story is an exception to the rule so I'm very lucky to have had the outcome that I had and that's only because I was diagnosed very early.
I am very lucky.