March is ovarian cancer awareness month.

Our beautiful friend and supporter Gail Kitchin lost her battle with ovarian cancer in 2015. To celebrate her courage and her role in raising awareness about ovarian cancer in Bristol, here is her story. We will miss Gail dearly.

My name is Gail, I am a 65 year old woman, have a long-term partner and am the mother of two young men in their twenties. Two years ago I was working part-time, thinking about retiring in three or four years when I was stunned by a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. This is my story…

During the summer of 2011 I noticed my abdomen was slightly swollen and thought I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which I’d had before. This time though a ‘non wheat’ diet didn’t seem to make a difference. Maybe I should give up something else, maybe it was the effect of the menopause. I didn’t feel any pain and my abdomen didn’t seem to become more swollen, but the bloating was persistent. I went to the Glastonbury Festival for the first time in 30 years and then to Italy for the first time in 40 years, where almost overnight my abdomen swelled up making me look 6 months pregnant. I wasn’t! The local, very efficient hospital, high up in a valley in Tuscany, diagnosed ascites and advised me to go home sooner than planned and before my breathing started to be affected. I flew home, went straight to A & E at Bristol Royal Infirmary and was admitted to hospital.

I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the quiet cancer. I knew almost nothing about this cancer and I don’t remember meeting anyone who had experienced it either personally or caring for someone else. I felt dazed and confused as well as relieved there was treatment, albeit chemotherapy. The cancer specialist said on average women with ovarian cancer start to feel unwell 14 months before diagnosis. I thought about what was going on in my life 14 months before and how that might be connected, but reached no firm conclusion.

Six doses of chemotherapy and a hysterectomy followed. No hair loss, no sickness or nausea. I retired from work on the grounds of ill health. Support has come from different places: family and friends, the Penny Brohn Cancer Care, the oncology team and my GP amongst others. This has been essential in enabling me to cope with a life limiting illness. After chemotherapy I slowly started to get my life back, I went to pottery classes again, I started cycling once more but I stayed close to home with no holidays abroad. I got involved with Target Ovarian Cancer, a national ovarian cancer charity, wanting to spread the word about ovarian cancer and then wham….. it’s back! A short dose of radiotherapy this time. No cure, it is now ‘managed’. No medication, ‘watching and waiting’ for what? For it to come back again! Sometimes I feel numbed by it all, by the anxiety, looking for tell tale signs and symptoms. Other times I feel very sad and occasionally liberated enough to let go.

I was amazed to hear other women’s stories of ovarian cancer, of misdiagnosis and late diagnosis, of the lack of awareness about signs and symptoms, meaning women diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the UK do not live as long as those in other EU countries. Ovarian cancer affects about one in 50 women and only 37% survive beyond 5 years. I wanted to do something about the lack of information and contacted Bristol Women’s Voice about including an awareness campaign in their health strategy. We contacted NHS Public Health in Bristol and together started to plan the campaign. This has given me a sense of purpose and confidence. I really believe that a campaign like this can make an important difference.

March is ovarian cancer month and the campaign launch is 23rd February running across Bristol, in supermarkets, at local community events, on local media and at MShed on International Women’s Day, March 8th. Leaflets have also been delivered to GP surgeries and pharmacies, so pick one up.

Gail Kitchin wrote this article for Bristol Woman in March 2014. On February 21, 2015 Gail lost her long battle with ovarian cancer. We will miss her dearly.

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