Before her cancer diagnosis in 2003, Cheryl Waller was enjoying a motorhome lifestyle with her wife, going on lots of trips, and working a nine-to-five job.
But during a holiday in Queensland with her wife, the then 44-year-old knew something was wrong.
“We did a rum tasting, and I was violently ill even though I hadn’t drunk much,” Cheryl said.
“We came home from holidays and went and saw my GP. She was ruling out things like an infection or bowel obstruction, and she sent me for a CT scan. It came back showing something.
“My GP said she thought I had ovarian cancer, and that if I did, I had a fifty-fifty chance of surviving. My first thought was, I’m not going to be one of that 50% that don’t survive. A 50% chance isn’t good enough – I still had a lot of living to do.”
Tests on fluid samples from Cheryl’s stomach confirmed that she had stage 3C ovarian cancer. This is when the cancer has spread beyond the pelvis to the lining of the abdomen or to nearby nymph nodes.
Sometimes women are afraid to ask their doctors questions, and I can say to them, that’s a logical question.
– Cheryl Waller
A day after the diagnosis, Cheryl underwent surgery. Afterwards, she was approached to be part of a medication clinical trial.
“I received the standard arm of the trial, which went for eight cycles,” she said. “It took me six months to finish the trial. I had to have a break during chemo because I had a blood transfusion and problems with my white cell count.
“I guess I’ve got a bit of a weak stomach, and every day through that treatment I threw up.
“I was very fatigued, very tired, and couldn’t do a lot. I was fortunate that I’d been in my government job for about 25 years and had a lot of leave, so I wasn’t under financial stress. My family were very supportive.”
Helping other women facing cancer
It’s now been 17 years and Cheryl has not had a cancer recurrence. She uses her experience to help other women with cancer.
“I started volunteering with Cancer Connect in 2005,” she says. “Since then, I’ve spoken to 41 women mostly from a LGBTQI background. It’s been really great – you can talk to women who are going through a similar thing and have a lot of questions to ask. Sometimes women are afraid to ask their doctors questions, and I can say to them, that’s a logical question. I was fortunate to have no issues with my sexuality during my treatment.”
Cheryl’s advice to women diagnosed with cancer is acceptance of the situation despite the difficult challenges it creates.
“Acceptance is a big thing – you’ve got to accept what’s happening to you to move forward,” she said. “My wife Rhonda was a huge support – she worked in the hospital system, I basically shut down and didn’t want to know what was next, but she had all the questions under the sun.
“Just keep asking questions – you know your own body, and if you feel like something’s not right, ask your doctor. I know that I had my symptoms for at least six months before I was diagnosed.”