Chris didn’t know her back pain was a subtle sign of ovarian cancer

Cancer Council NSW
Chris Hayward, cancer survivor

Chris Hayward was 58 when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her diagnosis came as a particular shock as she did not have any clear symptoms.

“The only symptoms I experienced were an intermittent backache, which worsened in severity and some stomach cramping,” she said. “It was a dull ache at first, and I’d been gardening a lot so I initially thought I must have hurt my back.

“I was using a heat pack, then I’d take some painkillers and it would disappear then come back again. I eventually knew that something wasn’t right, as the pain was getting worse.”

The mother-of-two made an appointment to see her gynaecologist. Following a series of scans, ultrasounds and pathology tests, she received an ovarian cancer diagnosis.

“It was a whirlwind,” she said. “I just thought, I can’t have this, because I used to have everything checked. I was very diligent with myself and keeping up to date with routine health checks.”

Chris underwent surgery so that doctors could find out how far the ovarian cancer had spread.

“I didn’t get the staging results for five days, which feels like forever,” she said. “You’re in your own little realm, with your mind working overtime.

“We found out that my cancer was stage 3C – which means the cancer cells had spread outside of my ovary. During the operation, the surgeon also took out my omentum that the cancer had spread to and lymph nodes from my groin.”

Chemotherapy treatment

Chris endured 18 weeks of chemotherapy to treat the cancer.

“The toughest part was when my hair started to fall out in the second week of chemo,” she said. “I was in the shower washing my hair, and it just started to come away in my hands. That was the moment when it hit me that this was really happening, I cried a lot in the shower it became my solace.”

To make her situation even more difficult, Chris experienced complications from the treatment.

“At one point during chemotherapy, I felt a bit woozy and had a temperature at home,” she said. “I had to go to emergency and needed a blood transfusion and antibiotics.

“It’s a common complication of chemotherapy called febrile neutropenia and a little bit scary – when you end up back in hospital, you worry if you’re ever going to leave again. My chemotherapy dose was reduced after that as I was also having problems with peripheral neuropathy and had a lot of pain in my fingers.

“I had regular check-ups after my treatments where they’d check my pathology levels. For those few days where you wait for the results to come back, a little bit of worry starts to creep back into your thoughts as it’s the unknown. The unknown is scary when you’ve already been through a cancer diagnosis and treatment. It’s like your body’s betrayed you, and will it again?”

Looking back on my diagnosis and treatment it was hard and an emotional roller coaster of doubt, fear, anger and resentment.

– Chris Hayward

Although Chris’ treatment was successful, her cancer experience is never far from her mind.

“Even now, when I get my pathology done yearly, I still get nervous, because it can always come back,” she said. “That five-year figure – that stays in your brain all the way through your treatments.”

Connecting with women with cancer

Chris is a Cancer Connect volunteer and she connects with women going through their journey with ovarian cancer.

“We are all here for each other,” she said. “It gives you a feeling that you’re helping someone, that they’re feeling less alone, they’re not alone and they can talk to someone in confidence. That’s the big plus about Cancer Connect.

“My youngest daughter is a nurse in an oncology ward and she told me that some people lose their will after a cancer diagnosis and become despondent. There’s no way I’m like that – the older I’m getting, the more determined that you want to help other women if you can.

Women that speak to Chris often want to know about the side effects of chemotherapy and if what they’re going through is normal.

“There is always the fear of a recurrence. My surgical oncologist calls it ‘The Sword of Damocles’ as it’s always swinging above our heads. As he says if it returns, we will deal with it then.

Chris’ advice for other women

“You take each day as it comes and live day-to-day. If you feel like staying in bed all day, stay in bed, you don’t have to do 50 million things a day, your body has been through a lot and chemo takes its toll so be kind to yourself and rest when needed. Remember everyone reacts differently to chemotherapy, you do what you can do.

“When you have cancer, you do start to lose yourself. Sometimes you just need to focus on one thing that makes you feel better. Putting my lipstick on was something I could point to and say, ‘There’s a little bit of me.’ It brightens your face up. Throughout treatment I kept my normality with continuing to work part time and managing the household.

“Looking back on my diagnosis and treatment it was hard and an emotional roller coaster of doubt, fear, anger and resentment. I found speaking to a psychologist who specialised in women’s cancers gave me the tools to handle my emotions. She also gave me some coping methods I have passed on to others.

“I also learnt to meditate together with practising mindfulness, which calmed me especially through chemotherapy and still practice both. The greatest gift I gave myself was coming to terms with the fact that; I am not the same woman that I once was and to be content with my life and be kind to myself. I also found it very cathartic to write poems during my cancer journey that helped me express what I was feeling at the time.

“You’ll find that some people, even friends think they’re helping you by saying things like cancer only happens to good people and look on the bright side, everything will be fine and platitudes like that. It’s good to remember that they mean well but most of them just don’t know what to say so give them some grace. But you don’t need negativity!”

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