Confronting ovarian cancer

Bonnie Belec
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St. John’s woman says family and a newfound spirituality helped her cope

One of the first things Alice Gibbons did before starting chemotherapy in October was go see a hairdresser.

Diagnosed last summer with ovarian cancer, the 48-year-old said she wasn’t waiting for the treatment to take her hair.

“It didn’t bother me,” Gibbons said of having her head shaved.

“I was told it hurts more if you lose it during treatments, so I went to the salon — the owner is a breast cancer survivor — and they took me to a special room and cut my hair short and then shaved it,” she said, rubbing her hand over her porcelain-textured scalp.

During a recent interview about her experience fighting cancer — the chemotherapy as well as the health care she received — Gibbons is upbeat and bubbly as she talks about her eyelashes falling out, the needles and the pain.

The whole ordeal, she said, has left her with a profound sense of faith.

“I was never a spiritual person, but since all of this I have developed a level of acceptance and spirituality that I never had before. I think that is what got me through it,” she said, sipping a cup of orange juice as one of her three small cats snakes around her legs.

“Nothing bothered me, really, but I had a couple of nights at the beginning when I was really anxious about getting diagnosed with cancer. You realize your mortality and I never really thought about that before,” Gibbons said, smiling warmly and brushing the cat’s back.

Sitting in her St. John’s apartment the day after she received her last treatment, surrounded by family and loved ones, Gibbons and her three sisters laugh, cry and carry on about how they’ve been brought closer by Gibbons’ illness.

The youngest of the sisters, Rita, played Florence Nightingale to her older sister.

Dorothy and Mary, who live in Nova Scotia and Ontario, respectively, said they were thankful for Rita’s devotion. They were part of Operation Sunshine — a surprise visit to Gibbons for her last chemo treatment March 6.

Rita said her sister had been sick for a while, with severe pain and bowel complications before the tumour was removed in August 2013. It had grown to about eight inches, pushing against her bowel and kidney.

Gibbons, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis nine years ago, was gravely ill when she was admitted.

“I didn’t think she was going to make it. She was very sick,” said Rita.

After 11 blood transfusions and surgery, Gibbons received her first chemo treatment in October.

A self-described feminist and super-fan of Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman, Hear Me Roar,” Gibbons said she never once got sick following either of the six chemo treatments.

In fact, she said she looked forward to it because Rita would always take her out for dinner afterwards.

“Support has been very important. It could have been a very lonely time for me, having to go to chemo by myself. My sister was there every step,” said Gibbons.

“I think it was the needles that made me afraid the most, but Rita held my hand, gave me comfort,” she said, adding that her partner, Jenny, was also instrumental in helping her through it all.

Gibbons spent more than six weeks in the hospital and said the worst thing about it was that she didn’t always know what was happening to her physically.

Ovarian cancer has been described a silent killer because initial symptoms can seem linked to other illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome.

The most common ovarian cancer symptoms include: pressure or pain in the abdomen, pelvis, back or legs, gastrointestinal problems, including nausea, indigestion, constipation or diarrhea, and chronic fatigue.

According to Ovarian Cancer Canada’s website (ovariancanada.org), more than 17,000 Canadian women have ovarian cancer. It is estimated that there will be 2,600 new diagnoses this year.

Matthew Piercey, CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society Newfoundland and Labrador Division (CCS-NL), said there is a lot of work still to do when it comes to ovarian cancer — the fifth most common cancer for women.

He said in 2013, there were 30 new cases and 30 deaths, the  same rates as for 2012.

“It is such a devastating disease,” said Piercey.

“There is no screening and many women who have it have no idea unless they are getting tested for something totally unrelated to the cancer and then it gets picked up along the way,” he said.

 About 75 per cent of all cases, he said, are diagnosed at the advanced stages and at that point the five-year survival rate is between 15 and 25 per cent.

“There are a lot things happening, research is being done, advances are happening. Survival rates over past 40 years have gone up significantly, and that is because of research” said Piercey.

“Is there more  to do? Absolutely … more needs to be done, that’s for sure.”

Gibbons’ initially went to emergency with stomach pain that was thought to be appendicitis.

“It was on her right side and (they) thought it was her appendix, so they were getting her ready for surgery and did a CT scan first, and that’s when the tumour showed up,” Rita said, adding her sister received top-notch care once she was admitted.

Gibbons said she has been blessed in every way and if all goes according to plan she’ll be in remission and cancer-free for the rest of her life.

“I’m looking forward to the next journey,” she said.

 

bbelec@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Canadian Cancer Society Newfoundland and Labrador Division, CCS-NL

Geographic location: Nova Scotia, Ontario

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  • Debbie Squires
    April 04, 2014 - 12:03

    Alice,my friend, I thought of you many times over the years. I wish you well. Debbie Squires from Holy Heart. debable@gmail.com

  • NYOB
    March 21, 2014 - 17:19

    God speed and hope you recover and get well soon Alice. My friend had a cyst in her ovary and it grew outside the ovary and into the fallopian tube like fingers she got both her ovary and fallopian tube removed 10 years ago. Back then she decided it is better to get it removed than risking something more serious like cancer in the future, but now she has recurring pains on that one side 10 years later that started recently this year.

  • Elizabeth
    March 21, 2014 - 07:44

    I am dealing with this right now, and I can certainly confirm it is a 'silent' disease, because symptoms do not become noticeable usually until the cancer has spread. It's not pleasant, but please keep getting regular Pap tests, breast examinations, etc.

  • Patricia
    March 20, 2014 - 08:22

    Reading this story brought back memories of my own encounter with ovarian cancer more than 40 years ago.I was 30 years old at the time and had 3 children under the age of 5 ,when I found out that I had a very large tumor.The only symptoms I had were severe abdominal swelling and pressure.I had surgery and was really lucky that the tumor was contained and had not spread to my other organs. I did not have to undergo chemo as my doctor felt he had got it all.Here I am now 70 years old and still kicking.Take heart Alice I will be praying for you too.