When Sara Hawkins noticed that a gland in her collar bone was swollen, her first thought was that she might have overdone it while exercising.
At only 35 years old, the paramedic was going to the gym four times a week and had always led a healthy lifestyle. However, she decided to get it checked out – just in case.
‘My mum had had non-Hodgkin lymphoma (symptoms can include enlarged lymph nodes) so I’m wary about glands and thought it best to be safe,’ says Sara, now 38, who lives with husband Ian, 46, in the West Midlands.
‘The GP was confident that it wasn’t anything serious but took bloods anyway and told me to come back in a week.
‘But during that time, I noticed that I was urinating a lot more frequently. Some nights I’d be visiting the toilet a dozen times.
My abdomen was swollen to the point where the doctor asked me if I might be pregnant, but I wasn’t.
‘I thought it might be down to hormones as I’ve got an issue with polycystic ovaries. I really wasn’t too concerned – especially when the first blood test had come back negative for anything serious.
It was when waddled into her surgery a week later and my stomach was even more bloated that the GP checked my stomach and felt a mass that she referred me for a scan at the hospital.
‘While having the internal scan, I winced in pain so I knew there was something wrong. It turned out there was a large mass encased in my ovary but even then, I was told not to panic and it was probably just a fibroid or cyst.
I had absolutely no idea that it could be serious.’
Sara is now grateful for her GP’s diligence. The mass inside her abdomen was a rare form of ovarian cancer, a disease which kills over 7,000 women a year in the UK. Often referred to as ‘the silent killer’ its symptoms may be mistaken for other less serious illnesses until it’s too late.
Only a specific blood tests for a substance called CA125 can detect whether it is likely to be ovarian cancer. Sara was to receive this shocking news the day after her scan.
‘A MacMillan nurse rang me at work and said that she was really sorry but some different markers for a rarer form of ovarian cancer were really high in my latest blood test. I was in shock and incredibly upset.
I dreaded having to tell my parents and Ian what had happened, but I went into work mode, asking structured logical questions about what kind of tumour I had.
As a health professional I knew that if the cancer had become widespread, this could significantly impact my prognosis but I tried to remain as level-headed as possible.’
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Sara had a germ cell tumour, a very rare form of ovarian cancer which affects mainly young women and teenagers. Only around 1-2 per cent of ovarian cancers are this type.
She was admitted for five hour surgery the very next morning, removing the full tumour and her ovary. It was successful and she recovered quickly. But only months later, while being monitored, her other ovary also started to show signs of change.
Sara made the decision to have a full hysterectomy to prevent the cancer reoccurring. It would not only make her infertile but plunge her into full menopause.
‘I’m very lucky in the sense that children have never really been on my radar,’ she says. ‘Ian already has a daughter and I’m close to her. But I wasn’t quite ready for what to expect in menopause. I’d always wondered about hot flushes and what they might feel like and I was soon to find out.
I was burning up from head to toe. Thankfully HRT patches sorted it out and I’m now on HRT tablets. But it was a very odd sensation.’
Now back to her former fitness levels, Sara has recently run a half marathon to raise money for The Robin Cancer Trust.
‘The charity has been a really important part of survivorship for me,’ she says. ‘They have encouraged me to join their running club and taken me from a non-runner to a half marathon runner.
There were many charities that I could support, but this one really appealed to me. It did not feel like some big corporate machine. It was just a family trying to do amazing work after they had lost their beloved son and brother, Robin Freeman at the age of 24 to Germ Cell Cancer.
They want to save young adults from dying of cancer through education and awareness. The Freeman family want to prevent another family going through what they did’.
Sara is urging other women not to ignore any symptoms of bloating or having to urinate more often.
‘The fact that I not only acted fast early on but the fact my doctor was willing to listen to my concerns and send for more tests saved my life,’ she says.
‘The symptoms are so vague that I can imagine many women would put them off, thinking that they’re just down to hormones or they’re just tired. But when I look back, it was so obvious that something wasn’t right.
You know your own body and if something feels wrong, don’t ever think you’re wasting your doctor’s time. Keep going back to the GP and asking for more tests. Be specific about what you think it might be. It might just save your life.’
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