'We have to look after ourselves as women': Cancer survivor Maria inspiring hope in others

Maria Lavelle, a public health nurse from Kanturk, has encouraged women to know the signs and symptoms of what she described as “a more rare” cancer than others such as breast cancer.
'We have to look after ourselves as women': Cancer survivor Maria inspiring hope in others

Maria Lavelle, a public health nurse from Kanturk, has encouraged women to know the signs and symptoms of what she described as “a more rare” cancer than others such as breast cancer.

A Cork woman who has overcome stage-three advanced ovarian cancer has urged other women to be able to know the symptoms.

Maria Lavelle, a public health nurse from Kanturk, has encouraged women to know the signs and symptoms of what she described as “a more rare” cancer than others such as breast cancer.

New research commissioned by the Irish Network for Gynaecological Oncology (INGO) has highlighted that 79% of women in Ireland are not confident they would notice a symptom of ovarian cancer.

Ms Lavelle was diagnosed in 2017 after she had noticed what she described as “a dull ache” in her left side. She said that at first, she normalised the pain as it was not a stabbing pain, but rather a dull ache that she had become used to. She then began to eat less and felt full more quickly than usual when eating. She also experienced bloating and was extremely fatigued, which she put down to not being fit enough at the time.

Ms Lavelle said that it was a change in her bowel habits that drove her to the doctor in the end.

“That’s something we don’t say to anybody. We don’t say, ‘Do you feel this way when you go to the toilet?’ We don’t talk about our bowel habits.”

She told her GP about her concerns and following blood tests, she had an appointment with gynecologist and oncologist Dr John Coulter in Cork University Hospital (CUH). He informed her she had high CA125, a chemical found in the blood that is sometimes released from ovarian cancer cells.

“Not all women with ovarian cancer will have a raised CA125. It’s not a definitive test but it’s a little red flag. My CA125 reading was 4,000-plus and the normal range is under 35,” she said.

She also had a mass on her left side which was removed. Six months of chemotherapy and 15 months of Avastin therapy later, she said she was more hopeful about her future.

“At the time, I thought the game was up because the only cancer patients that I had seen in the community were end-of-life care; palliative care. I had never met anybody like me who is nearly five years post-diagnosis, who is running a household, who is going back to work in July. I wish I had met with myself. I would have been reassured.

“That’s the one message I want to get across is a message of hope, that there’s a woman out there who is five years post-diagnosis who is going back to work. It’s not the end, it’s just a chapter in your life.”

The INGO has launched a campaign to help raise awareness of the symptoms of ovarian cancer — bloating that is persistent and doesn’t come and go, eating less and feeling full more quickly, abdominal and pelvic pain you feel most days, and changes in urination or bowel habits.

“We all, as women, need to educate ourselves about the signs to look out for with ovarian cancer, we’re very good with breast cancer but ovarian cancer is very subtle,” Ms Lavelle said. 

“We have to look after ourselves as women and they need to be able to sing those symptoms off.”

Recalling a famous line delivered in the movie The Shawshank Redemption, “get busy living or get busy dying”, she said: “The latter is not an option. You’ve got to stand up, dust yourself down and keep moving forward. Cancer doesn’t define any of us, it’s just a chapter in your life.

“The treatment is so much better now, we’ve got a good chance. I’m excited about going back to work and meeting all my friends because I still have something to offer, we all have something to offer.”

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