Ageing with attitude: Life after ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer has been dubbed ‘the silent killer’. Christina Henry tells Rowena Walsh why she is one of the lucky ones

Christina Henry, who was successfully treated for ovarian cancer, is full of praise for the medical team who cared for her. Picture: Moya Nolan
Christina Henry, who was successfully treated for ovarian cancer, is full of praise for the medical team who cared for her. Picture: Moya Nolan

Three is Christina Henry’s lucky number. It is the number that saved her life. It took three investigations to discover that she did indeed have stage 1 ovarian cancer despite the initial results coming back clear.

Approximately 400 Irish women are diagnosed with it every year, says Joan Kelly, cancer support manager with the Irish Cancer Society. “Ovarian cancer has a high mortality rate with about 270 women dying from the disease each year. Around half of all cases are in the over-65 age bracket.”

This can be related to the fact that they have gone through the menopause, have a family history or have received HRT, says Joan.

Christina, now aged 71, was just back from a family holiday in Kenmare in June 2018 when she had a vaginal bleed. She went to her GP as soon as she could. “I didn’t waste any time,” she says.

Other symptoms of ovarian include feeling bloated, eating less and feeling full more quickly, abdominal or pelvic pain, and changes in bowel or bladder habits.

Christina, who is originally from Mayo, moved to Dublin in 1966 when she trained as a primary-school teacher. The mother-of-four taught for 36 years before retiring in 2004. She says that the only time she has slowed down was when her cancer was discovered.

When she had the bleed, Christina says she was frantic with worry, but she was quickly able to get an appointment to see a gynaecologist in the Rotunda Hospital. She had a series of tests in late July and had to wait for the results.

I had myself dead and buried. That’s the worst time, actually, when you’re waiting for results.

Although the initial results were clear, her consultant was suspicious and he carried out two further investigations. It was only then that a cyst on Christina’s left ovary was spotted. He told her she needed a hysterectomy.

She was booked into the Rotunda on October 18. Although it’s a major operation, Christina adopted a zen approach to her recuperation

“I just go with things, that’s the way I deal with surgery and things like that.”

She says her positive outlook comes with age. “Life teaches you.”

Her son Paul was with her when her consultant gently broke the news that she would have to attend the Mater Private for chemotherapy.

It was due to start in early December but was delayed because Christina had to undergo a second procedure.

For Christina, the after-effects of this keyhole surgery were even worse than those of the hysterectomy, as her entire abdomen was tender afterwards. She says that she couldn’t do a thing for Christmas, but her family took over.

“They’d tell me to go and sit down and, sure, I’d only be sitting down when they’d come in and ask me how long something would take. The main things to me are the cake and the pudding, and I had them done in advance, and I made the stuffing. We got through it, and it was grand.”

Her six sessions of chemo started in February.

The cancer was gone, as far as they were concerned, but they gave me the chemo because it was so aggressive and rare.

Christina finished the treatment in June and is now in remission. She has recently stopped wearing a wig, now that her own hair is growing back. “I say to people, I can’t understand why it’s grey!”

She is full of praise for her medical staff. “I felt safe with them. I felt from the beginning that I was in good hands.”

Christina recommends that those facing a similar diagnosis try to remain positive and take each day as it comes.

“You will have side-effects from the chemo but they don’t last. I never stayed in bed for one day. It’s deadly to stay in bed.Do normal things as best you can without overdoing it.”

- Christina receives ongoing support from ARC Cancer Support Centre in Dublin 7. For information on the free services from ARC Centres, visit .arccancersupport.ie

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