At just 31-years-old Narell Whitehead was diagnosed with the most deadly women’s cancer – ovarian cancer.
Almost five years later on her final check-up, the Nowra resident was delivered another blow when it was discovered the cancer had returned.
“I went to see Dr Brian Hoolahan and he picked it up. I just burst into tears because the survival rate the second time around is very low,” she said.
The now forty-year-old is one of the lucky ones though and four years on from her second diagnosis, she’s on a mission to raise awareness of the disease.
“February is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month so I’m hoping to spread the message to all women about the symptoms of ovarian cancer so they know what they’re looking for,” Mrs Whitehead said.
Symptoms include unexplained weight loss or gain, feeling full after eating only a small amount, indigestion, a need to urinate often, appetite loss, persistent bloating, pressure or pain in the abdominal area or pelvic area and post-menopausal bleeding or irregular periods.
Four Australian women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every day.
More than half of the women diagnosed will die from the disease.
“In my case, the symptoms were quite minimal, there was mainly bloating and stomach pain,” Mrs Whitehead said.
“It wasn’t until I saw a commercial that I thought ‘I have three out of four of those symptoms’ and that’s how I found myself seeing a doctor the first time.”
Risk factors include using hormone replacement therapy, previously having had breast or bowel cancer, aged over 50, smoking or obesity, family history of ovarian, breast or bowel cancer, having endometriosis, never having had children or having them later in life or having genetic mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.
Mrs Whitehead ticked two of those boxes.
“I have a family history of breast cancer on both sides and I haven’t had children, however I was only 31 when I was first diagnosed so it’s important that all women recognise any changes and act on them,” she said.
“There’s also more and more women not having children now, whether it be because they’re concentrating on their career or it just hasn’t happened and I’ve known women as young as 23 who have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.”
Pap tests do not test for ovarian cancer. Instead, a CA125 blood test is required.
After going through countless procedures, major surgeries and hospital stays, Mrs Whitehead is recovered and credits Professor Neville Hacker in Sydney with saving her life.
She’s now an ambassador for Ovarian Cancer Australia and recently held a fundraiser, complete with a live band on February 4 in Berry. More than $800 was raised through raffles and an auction.
Teal is the colour of Ovarian Cancer Australia and the organisation is encouraging everyone to host a fundraising ‘Afternoon Teal’ to help ensure all women suffering ovarian cancer have access to treatment, information and support. Head to www.afternoonteal.net.au for more information.
Mrs Whitehead also celebrated her 40th birthday on February 4 and said she’s hoping that by sharing her story, she can help another woman see her next birthday.
“If I can save just one woman, it’s worth it,’ she said.