As an experienced nurse, specialising in recovery after surgery, Janet Peacock knew all the signs to look for if a patient was in danger. One such symptom – a low blood oxygen level – would be a definite cause for concern and she would never dream of ignoring it.
Yet that’s exactly what the 61-year-old from Truro admits she did when she noticed this symptom on one particular patient – herself.
"I was on a training exercise in January 2020 with some students and was ‘playing patient’ so they could measure my vital signs," she says. "A device called an oximeter was placed on my finger to measure my blood oxygen and the result came up as 93. A healthy level is between 95-100 but every time we measured, it said 93.
"This is a real red flag in medical terms and can mean something is seriously wrong. It can prove fatal. My colleagues asked me if I was breathless, but I felt fine. I told the students that it was probably a mistake and to record it as 95 instead."
Since that incident, Janet, has gone over in her mind why she dismissed such an important symptom. Because today, tragically, she is now living with incurable Stage 4 ovarian cancer.
"I have tried to analyse why I pushed it to the back of my mind and I honestly think that it was down to a number of things," says Janet, who lives with husband David, 61, an accountant.
"Like so many women, I thought I was too busy to deal with it and as we were just heading into the pandemic, I knew how busy doctors were too and didn’t want to bother them. I’ve seen so many timewasters in the NHS that it’s pushed me to go the other way, to ignore niggles and signs. I was probably in denial as well.
"It’s so silly because it wasn’t even my first symptom. I’d been suffering with consistent pain in my left leg, which radiated from my bottom, for months and had seen my GP in 2019 who said it sounded like sciatica. I accepted that straight away. I’d also suffered bloating and didn’t want to eat as much."
In fact, it was only in May 2020 and two months into the first lockdown that Janet decided to contact her GP again.
"I’d bought an oximeter to measure my oxygen levels and noticed they had occasionally dropped to as low as 88," she says. "My husband and best friend encouraged me to ring the GP because they had noticed how breathless I had been. The GP sent me straight to hospital for a chest x-ray and I was told I had a pleural infusion, where the lining of the lung had filled with fluid. It was no wonder I was finding it hard to breathe. Again, I put it down to having a really bad dose of flu a few months earlier. But within days, I was struggling to breathe and ended up being rushed to A&E."
It was at this point that doctors took blood samples, one of which was a CA125 test which picks up markers towards ovarian cancer. A healthy reading should be 35 but Janet’s reading was over 700. She discovered she had a tumour on her ovary on her 60th birthday.
"I could see the concern in my family’s faces and I had to show them that this wasn’t going to floor me and that I was going to do everything I practically could," she says.
"It wasn’t until I met with the gynaecological nurse a few days later that I was told it was Stage 4 and incurable. Due to the COVID restrictions I had to receive the news on my own, but as a nurse, I was grateful to her for being so honest. I needed to know what practical steps could be taken."
Janet underwent surgery to remove her ovaries and tumours and underwent chemo. A scan showed no cancer left but four months later, it returned and she had more chemo. She is now taking the targeted therapy drug Nirapabib which inhibits cell growth but has no idea how long she has left.
"The average lifespan for someone with my stage of cancer is two years and I’m coming up to two years now but I’m staying positive and my goal is to have another Christmas with my four children, two step-children and five grandchildren," she says.
"My consultant won’t give me a timeline and that’s probably wise because you can frighten yourself to death. I’m very much living in the moment now and enjoying the time I have left.
‘But my message to other women is to please put your health first and not ignore symptoms. If I’d had a symptom diary and written them all down, I could have put two and two together and who knows where I would be right now."
Check your symptoms using the Target Ovarian Cancer site.
Watch: Comedian Janey Godley reveals she has ovarian cancer