Fiona Burkeman, who has two adult daughters and a son, tells how a grumbling hip joint and the vigilance of her gynaecologist saved her life.

“A scan for a hip problem and the vigilance of my consultant saved my life”

I went for a scan purely because my replacement hip (a legacy of years of showjumping) was starting to cause pain after 12 years of working perfectly. My hips seemed fine, but the scan showed a cyst on my ovary. The sonographer said it looked innocuous and a blood test to check for cancer markers came back clear, but my specialist suggested re-scanning it in two moths’ time.

The repeat scan showed the cyst had grown by half a centimeter. It still looked harmless, but my gynaecologist said he wanted me to come in for surgery in three days to have my ovaries removed. I was shocked, but he said he was just being cautious. After the operation, he said that he was sorry that I had to go through all that – everything looked fine with no sign of cancer in my body. Tissue samples went to the lab for a routine biopsy and I went home incredibly relieved.

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He was so reassuring I almost didn’t keep the follow-up appointment. But I thought I should, just to make certain. The consultant and I talked casually and he said, “I’m very sorry, but you have high-grade aggressive ovarian cancer”

I was shocked and finally managed to ask, “What happens now?” He told me he would refer me to The Royal Marsden, where I would have a radical hysterectomy followed by six months of chemotherapy.

When all the treatment was over, although relieved I didn’t feel elated; I was frightened. The statistics are so bleak that you spend your life living in fear. Every three months I go for a check-up and will do so for five years.

I’ve lost weight, I exercise and eat a healthy diet. I went to the Penny Brohn Cancer Care centre in Bristol to learn about nutrition, how to boots my immune system and the benefits of supplements.

My experience isn’t typical, but  little is with ovarian cancer. That’s why I’m so passionate about raising awareness. My encounter would have been very different if my consultant had trusted the blood tests. I just want to do what I can to get the message out there. I have been very fortunate to be closely involved with Target Ovarian Cancer, who have been so informative and have literally provided a lifeline for me.

Sara-Lois Cunningham, 41, a singer and singing teacher, is married to Andrew, a music publisher. They live in Tunbridge Well, Kent with their children, two and three.

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“I was lucky my symptoms were so obvious”

In 2010, caught up in moving house, I ignored my expanding waistline for a few months even though I could feel a large lump in my stomach. It sounds ridiculous, but I had so much on.

When I did confide in my GP, she referred me to a consultant, who warned me I had a cyst on the left ovary, which could rupture at any time. I had an operation and the ovary and the cyst were removed. After it was tested, I was told it had been malignant. There then followed four months of chemotherapy.

Now one year on, I’m back to full strength. I take pleasure in everything I do and though I worry about it returning, I am moving from three-monthly to six-monthly checks. I’m thankful the cyst made my symptoms obvious as for so many women they are vague.

The figures

UK survival rates are among the lowest in Europe at 36%. A large benchmark study is under way to determine the cause, but it’s widely believed this is as a result of late detection due to lack of awareness on the part of health professionals and patients.

The first results of the Department of Health’s International Cancer Benchmarking Study showed that late diagnosis in the UK is a major contributor to its overall poor survival rates.

Women with ovarian cancer are five times more likely to die within a month of diagnosis than women with breast cancer (11% vs 2%) 
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