When Val Emery paid a visit to her doctor’s one morning she had no idea that it was just the very beginning of her long battle with ovarian cancer.
The 68-year-old, from Stockton Lane, Stafford, discovered that she had a prolapsed womb following a routine smear test in August 2007.
It was suggested that she practice pelvic floor exercises to help, but later Val began experiencing stomach pain which left her struggling to complete basic tasks like bending over.
The mother-of-four underwent an ultrasound and discovered that she had a mass in either her ovaries or bowels.
While waiting for further tests, Val’s symptoms took a turn for the worse.
“I was experiencing severe stomach pain,” she says, “When the doctor said the word, ‘cancer.’ I fell down. I looked at my daughter and said, I’ve got to get out of here.
“Nobody in our family had had cancer, that I knew of then. I was the only one, and it was a shock. I heard of it but nobody in the family had had it, so it was just unusual.”
Val was one of 7,000 women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the UK each year. It can occur at any age but is most common in post-menopausal women, with 90 per cent of cases in women over the age of 45.
And, although it was devastating news for Val, the doctor said she was lucky, because her cancer was diagnosed in the early stages which meant that she had a better chance of beating the disease.
Val had an operation to remove two cancerous tumours, before beginning her first round of chemotherapy.
But she struggled to cope with the side effects of the treatment, such as hair loss and constipation, complicated by a hernia which needed to be operated on.
“Losing my hair was the worst thing,” she says.
“The doctors said that my hair would probably come out after the first lot of chemotherapy. It didn’t.
“But by the end of my second lot of chemo, my hair had come out.”
Val described herself on treatment as has having a different side to her. She was tired and weak most days, but she went on to endure six rounds of chemotherapy.
“I used to count one down, five to go,” she says. “I think everybody does that. I had my last treatment on my 60th birthday.”
During this time Val was going through a divorce and she was unable to continue in her job as a catering manager, after 25 years.
Val was fortunate to have the support of her four children – Deborah, Neil, Sarah and Andrew – throughout, but found it hard to talk about her condition outside of her immediate family.
“It was a scary and lonely time, because it was all very quick,” she says.
“My daughter was there for me. She had two little ones at the time, but she would come and take me for my treatment. And my sons, would take it in turns.”
Val’s treatment was successful but after getting the good news that she was cancer free, it was then that she felt most alone.
” I felt abandoned,” she says, “and at that time there were no ovarian cancer support groups in Staffordshire”.
Three years after Val’s treatment a local support group was finally started.
It’s now eight years since Val was diagnosed with cancer.
Since that time, she has joined an online forum at the County Hospital in an effort to interact with other women whom have shared her experience.
She is also a patient champion with the Transforming Cancer and End of Life Care in Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Programme.
Val continues to share her story with the Greater Midlands Cancer Network and The National Cancer Intelligence Network to raise awareness and to increase the survival rate of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year in the UK.
“At one time if you mentioned the word ‘cancer,’ no one wanted to know about it. It was the known as the ‘big C’,” she says, “People were frightened by it and they still are. It’s a scary thing. But now, there is more research being done, and there are cures.”
Julie Robertson, Cancer Nurse Specialist at the Royal Stoke University Hospital, agrees:
“Each patient diagnosed has a hospital based Keyworker who supports them throughout their journey. We signpost them to Ovacome the national support charity which they find accessible.
“We would always encourage them to go as the professionals are there to help and fully understand this is a worrying time for any lady and will offer support.”
She also urges women to be aware of the symptoms of bloating, feeling full quickly, loss of appetite, pain discomfort in lower tummy area and changes in bowel habits that all could be early signs of ovarian cancer.
Val added: “It’s important to get symptoms checked out, because you never know.
“I consider myself very lucky – my cancer was found by mistake and I survived.”
For support and advice contact the local charity Ovacome on 0800 008 7054.