Living life with ovarian cancer

Posted on: 6th February, 2017

Category: Features

Contributor: Mary O'Brien

Pictured Above: The Kingston family at the presentation of the cheque to OvaCare from the fundraising event at De Barra, Clonakilty in January. Pic: Richie Tyndall Photography

Four years ago, life for Catherine Kingston and her family changed forever when, age 62, Catherine was diagnosed with advanced stage (Stage III) ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer is the fourth most common female cancer for women in Ireland. Approximately 350 women are diagnosed every year, with 80 per cent over the age of 50. Although she only had one symptom at the time of her diagnosis, abdominal bloating, as a trained nurse Catherine knew that something wasn’t right so she went to visit her GP.

Other symptoms of ovarian cancer can include trapped wind; pain or dragging sensation in your lower abdomen or side; vague indigestion or nausea; poor appetite and feeling full quickly; changes in your bowel or bladder habits; abnormal vaginal discharge or bleeding (rare). There is currently no reliable screening test for ovarian cancer, which means that unfortunately most women are diagnosed at an advanced stage of the disease.

CA125 is a protein produced by some ovarian cancers. It circulates in the blood and so can be measured with a blood test. It is important to point out however than an elevated level of CA125 in the blood is not always an indicator of ovarian cancer. It can also be elevated due to endometriosis, menstruation or ovarian cysts. Catherine’s blood test came back with a hugely elevated level of CA125 so she was sent for an ultrasound and ultimately diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer.

Catherine’s daughter, Paula Kingston, talks to Mary O’Brien about her mum’s diagnosis, the support Catherine has received, in particular from voluntary group OvaCare, and why it so important for women of all ages to be aware of the signs of ovarian cancer.

“After mum had her ultrasound, things started to move very fast,” says Paula.

“There was an abnormal build up of fluid from her liver in her abdomen, which is known as Ascites; she looked like she was nine months pregnant at the time.

“She underwent surgery and after opening her up the surgeon said that he couldn’t do anything, as the tumours were too profuse; they had scattered like sand and stuck to her organs in the peritoneal cavity. So, once she had healed from the surgery, her only option was chemotherapy in the hope that it would shrink the tumours.

“After chemo, she was operated on again and the surgeon removed as much of the tumours as possible. Her womb, ovaries, fallopian tubes and part of her omentum (sheet of fatty tissue in abdomen) were also removed. Then she had to have more chemo.”

A year later, Catherine’s bloods were stable and she was feeling well enough to go on holiday to Tuscany in Italy with her family. “We had an amazing time together and we are so glad we went when mum was well enough to travel and enjoy it,” says Paula.

“Mum has been having chemotherapy pretty much constantly since then but in between treatments she has been out and about and living her life. She’s a very strong woman.”

Like her mum, Paula is also a nurse. Catherine, who retired from nursing after her diagnosis, has two other daughters: Deirdre, a Labour councillor in Dublin, who works for the Irish Cancer Society and Orla, who works for the Environmental Protection Agency. Catherine, a native of Bere Island, is married to Martin and they live in Rosscarbery.

Mindset and nutrition play a huge part in Catherine’s health and quality of life according to Paula. Bowel obstruction is a problem that can occur with ovarian cancer; the tumours can wrap around the bowel. This happened to Catherine and she had to have an ileostomy (a surgical operation in which a damaged part is removed from the ileum and the cut end diverted to an artificial opening in the abdominal wall). “She was in hospital for over a month which was very tough,” says Paula. “She has had to change her diet as a result, but in a way, the ileostomy has given her a new lease of life, it’s given her more time.”

“You wouldn’t know that mum has cancer. But that’s her mindset,” says Paula.

“One of the hardest things for her was losing her hair but she has brilliant support from her friends. She gets her treatment in the South Infirmary and everyone there is amazing. She’s made so many friends, other patients, and they’re all very honest with each other and have a great rapport. Her oncologist Seamus O’Reilly has also been a huge support and of course, Jackie and Mary in the oncology unit.

OvaCare is a support group based in Cork that provides support for women their families affected by ovarian cancer. Its goal is to improve diagnosis and education of ovarian cancer within Ireland. With the group having provided so much support to her own mum and also with the aim of raising awareness about ovarian cancer, Paula organised a fundraiser for OvaCare in De Barras in Clonakilty on January 6, Women’s Little Christmas. Right from the beginning, Paula was overwhelmed by the support she received; from Ray Blackwell in De Barra; the many musicians who agreed to come on board (Liz Clarke, Christine Deady, Deirdre Archbold, Ronan Archbold, Eugene Brosnan, Anthony Noonan, John Fitzgerald, Karen O’Regan, Margaret Deegan and Gavin Moore); Siobhan O’Mahony, who works for Clarins, oranised €1000 of Clarins products to give away on the night; the many business and individuals who immediately offered to help or donate prizes for the fundraiser; and of course the many women and even some men who came on the night to support the event. “We raised €2910 on the night, this town is amazing,” says Paula.

Catherine has also accessed and found very beneficial the services of Cork ARC Cancer Support House, a voluntary organisation established to provide a holistic centre in which people with cancer and their families can find emotional support and practical help. The Cork ARC Cancer Support House opened in Bantry in 2015.

Catherine is now 66. “She can’t believe she has the free travel card,” says Paula laughing and delighted that her mum used it recently to travel to Dublin to see her perform at the Temple Bar Tradfest in Dublin. Well-known in local music circles, when she’s not nursing, Paula is writing songs and performing. When Catherine was first diagnosed, Paula wrote and recorded a song for her entitled ‘Bere Island’. “It was a lovely thing to do together in a time we were all very afraid and upset,” says Paula. “Mum and dad were both involved in making the video.

“Mum was born and bred on Bere Island and is a very proud island woman,” says Paula. We often go down to visit my uncle Jim Crowley who still lives on the island. We walked the island with mum last year, as far as the lighthouse and back.

“Mum is very organised and open; she has her funeral planned and has discussed what she wants with us, which has been therapeutic for her…to know she has control over that.

“We’re a very close-knit and open family and we do a lot of talking, crying and laughing together,” says Paula.

“It’s so important to laugh a lot together and make good memories.”

Cork ARC Cancer Support House, Bantry, 027 53891.

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