Peter Williams: Too many women dying of gynaecological cancers
Gautami Motupally was just 13 and about to start at Lynfield College in Auckland's west.
She had noticed she was gaining weight. Not necessarily uncommon in a young teenage girl. So she made what she thought would be a routine visit to her doctor. The GP noticed something wrong straight away and had her admitted to hospital.
The next day Gautami had a 6-kilogram cyst removed, as well as her right ovary. She had dysgerminoma or ovarian germ cell cancer.
After the surgery and six months of chemotherapy, Gautami started making a full recovery. She is now 20, a second-year occupational therapy student at AUT and her prognosis for a long and healthy life is good. She has even been told she can have children.
I raise Gautami's story because September is gynaecological cancer awareness month. It's one of those awareness campaigns close to my heart because my first wife Cecile died of ovarian cancer in 1996. She was 42.
There are five gynaecological cancers. Ovarian is the most dangerous. It's insidious, often not discovered early enough, has symptoms which are common with other conditions and, when finally diagnosed, it's often too late to do much about it.
The other cancers in the group are uterine, vulval, vaginal and cervical. The only screening programme is the smear test for cervical cancer.
Because of my family connection with ovarian cancer, I am a trustee of the New Zealand Gynaecological Cancer Foundation (NZGCF). To be honest, compared to some health and cancer charities, the NZGCF is pretty small. Our main aim is to raise awareness of these diseases and, in particular, to encourage any woman who may be feeling possible symptoms to see a doctor as quickly as possible.
Sadly, there's not much awareness about these diseases, yet consider this:
One woman dies of a gynaecological cancer in New Zealand every day.
Three women are diagnosed every day.
More die of ovarian cancer in New Zealand each year than of melanoma.
The most common symptoms are abdominal swelling and bloating (as was the case with Gautami), and abnormal eating and toilet habits. Often this is accompanied by back pain.
But sadly, it seems a lot of GPs will not recognise or consider a gynaecological cancer when a patient first comes in with the symptoms. I know of two women, both in their thirties, who saw a doctor knowing something was wrong.
One of them, in the end, frustrated with her GP, took herself to Auckland Hospital and insisted on being tested. She had ovarian cancer. It was detected early. She has had surgery and chemotherapy and her prognosis, like that of Gautami, is good.
Another, from further south, also knew something was wrong. But like many before her, and probably since, she was sent away with what her GP suggested was irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). That's not surprising. Some research suggests over 20 per cent of those who eventually are diagnosed with ovarian cancer are told to start with they have IBS.
By the time the real cause of this woman's pain and discomfort was discovered, her condition had progressed disturbingly.
Early diagnosis for all gynaecological cancers, but especially ovarian, is key to improving outcomes. But for early diagnosis, we need more awareness of both the disease and its symptoms.
It is not a high-profile illness like breast or prostate cancer.
So if the above words have improved your knowledge of the disease, I've made my point. If you, or someone you know, may be experiencing some of the symptoms I've described, do them a favour and insist they see a GP.
Hopefully, they'll be as fortunate as 13-year-old Gautami Motupally.
One woman dying every day from these diseases is one woman too many.