REAL LIFE

It wasn’t stress, it was cancer

Struck down by a nasty cough, Liz battled on. Little did she know the greatest fight of her life had just begun.
Liz with husband Chris, and sons Mark and Nathan
Nathan, Chris, Liz and Mark

Liz Baker, 43, Highfields, Qld

The familiar tickle arose in my throat once again. ‘Excuse me,’ I managed, spluttering into my hand. I’d had the irritating cough for weeks and I assumed it was a sign a cold was on its way. It was the last thing I needed.

The month before, in September 2013, I’d strangely started throwing up in the mornings. But as mum to two boys, Mark, now 16, and Nathan, 12, with my husband, Chris, 52, I knew what morning sickness was like and this wasn’t it. Then I remembered the stress I’d been experiencing in my job at a takeaway store. Perhaps that had something to do with it?

When I’d consulted a doctor, he put my symptoms down to reflux and gave me medication to keep the vomiting at bay. Now though, I was dealing with this nasty cough. I’d never smoked or had asthma so I figured I’d picked up a bug.

I assumed it was a sign a cold was on its way.

But a month later, I felt an excruciating pain in my leg, as though I’d pulled a muscle. ‘It’s a blood clot,’ my GP said, prescribing me blood thinning medication. It helped, but the cough still hadn’t gone away. One morning, I was dressing when I noticed my clothes hung more loosely than they used to. I hadn’t changed my diet or exercise plan so I was shocked when the scales showed I’d lost six kilos in a month. What’s going on? I wondered, perplexed.

Scrutinising my body in the mirror, I seemed a little bloated and there was swelling under my right ribs. Individually, my illnesses over the past three months didn’t seem that unusual. Every woman gets a cough, a stomach bug or bloating from time to time. Weight fluctuations are common too.

Still, with those symptoms combined, a little voice told me I should get it checked out. My GP sent me for an ultrasound the very next day. ‘There’s fluid on your lungs,’ he said, inspecting the results. ‘And swelling on your right ovary.’ To investigate further, he asked me to have a CT scan that afternoon.

Liz and husband, Chris.

was desperate to deal with whatever it was and move on. But when my GP called asking me to see him straight away, alarm bells started ringing. Was this more serious than I’d thought? Nothing could have prepared me for what came next. ‘You have a tumour the size of a small football on your ovary,’ the doctor said.

How was that possible? I was sure I would have noticed something that big. My ovaries had helped give me two beautiful sons and just months earlier everything seemed fine. I told myself it still was but deep down I associated ‘tumour’ with just one thing…

Pushing the thought away, Chris and I headed to Brisbane for more tests while my mum, Jeanette, looked after the boys. There, I had a PET scan and met with an oncologist. Clutching Chris’ hand, I listened as the specialist explained the results. My mind went numb as two words echoed in my head – cancer and chemo.

Nothing could have prepared me for what came next.

The tumour was cancerous, stage-four and aggressive. I’d have to undergo treatment to shrink it before a surgeon could attempt to remove it. My little niggling cough had turned into a nightmare! With no family history of ovarian cancer, was that my only warning?

Although I was determined to fight the upcoming battles, my first hurdle was by far the hardest – telling the boys. Sitting down with Mark, I explained as best as I could. ‘I have cancer,’ I stammered.

Liz undergoing chemo
‘It didn’t take long for the treatment to take its toll.’

Mark stared at me with shock and terror. It was more than a teenage boy should ever have to deal with. Nathan seemed to take it better, until his behaviour started changing. ‘I’m scared I’m going to lose my mum!’ he roared one day, full of rage. It broke my heart. What reassurance could I give him? The only promise I could make was to fight this disease so I could watch my beautiful boys grow into men.

After that, I went through nine weeks of chemo. It didn’t take long for the treatment to take its toll. My hair came out in clumps. When Chris offered to shave my head, I broke down. ‘I’m not ready,’ I sobbed, unable to imagine myself without a full head of hair.

Eventually, I gave in. Tears streamed down my cheeks with each precious clump that fell to the floor. Not long after, I attended a cancer support day when I got chatting to the lady next to me. Like me, she was bald, but hadn’t covered her naked head with a wig. ‘Why hide behind something?’ she said. She was right. There was nothing to be ashamed of!

”Why hide behind something?’ she said.’

Afterwards, I built my confidence to be bald and beautiful. Everyone, including my boys, was understanding. After the chemo, my surgeon agreed to operate. As I was wheeled into theatre, I couldn’t wait to get the killer out of my body for good.

But it was more complicated than doctors initially thought. Blinking my eyes open in recovery, a nurse was tending to my wounds. Looking down, I saw a small bag resting on my hip. ‘What’s that?’ I mumbled. I had an inkling it was a stoma bag, to collect waste from my body. ‘We removed all of the tumour,’ the surgeon said later. ‘But there were challenges.’

He explained my football-sized ovarian tumour was so large that it was also attached to my liver, bladder and bowel. Doctors had to remove bits of those organs too. ‘We believe you’ll make a full recovery,’ he assured me, adding that the stoma bag was only temporary.

Liz with husband Chris, and sons Mark and Nathan
Nathan, Chris, Liz and Mark

Still, the fight was far from over. After that, I went through even more chemo sessions, but thankfully they worked. Three months ago, I breathed a sigh of relief when I was given the all-clear from cancer.

Although doctors think the previous symptoms I’d suffered were related to the tumour, they aren’t sure exactly how. I’ll always have to keep an eye on my health but in the meantime, I’m focusing on fundraising and building awareness about ovarian cancer.

I had a simple cough and I’ll probably suffer more in the future. But I listened to my body when it told me something was wrong and I encourage other women to do the same. It might just save your life.

Originally published in that’s life! Issue 5, 2015.

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