Lifestyle, What's On Our Mind

If you thought this would save your life would you do it too?

Stephanie Bansemer-Brown by Stephanie Bansemer-Brown
March 29th, 2015

I was never a real fan of Angelina Jolie, I thought she stole another woman’s man (Rachel from Friends no less!) and she always seemed so aloof.  However in recent years I have warmed to her, been heartened by her generosity and over recent days empathised with her journey.

Having your breasts and ovaries removed is certainly a monumental decision.  I commend Angelina for being so public about her decision – a decision that I know would not have been taken lightly – using her profile to raise awareness for ovarian cancer and the choices we have in cancer prevention.

Four months ago, I undertook the same operation (although I had a total hysterectomy with the removal of my uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes) for the very same reason – to  exercise my options in cancer prevention. I do not carry the BRAC gene, however my mother passed away aged 42 years after an aggressive and rare form of ovarian cancer.  My sister and I watched as she went from being a vibrant healthy woman to hospital-bound and a shadow of her former self, both physically and mentally.  She passed away a mere 6 months after her diagnosis without experiencing any quality of life.

It’s a hideous disease; and I am no stranger to cancer. In 2012 I was diagnosed with bowel cancer, therefore the possibility of cancer growing in my body yet again undetected, was enough for me to do my utmost to ensure I didn’t go down the same path as my mother.  At 44, a mother of a 5-year old son, having a loving husband and many more years left to live and enjoy – I wanted to give myself every opportunity to spend time with my family and see my son grow up.

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So I embarked on this journey and chose to have an elective total hysterectomy.  I had been contemplating it for years, however after going through a gruelling 8 months of chemotherapy for bowel cancer, my decision was cemented. Before I pressed the “go” button, I sought advise from a number of medical specialists including my oncologist, colorectal surgeon, GP and finally my gynaecologist/oncologist.  My husband also played a major role in my decision and he supported me 100% of the way. While specialists agreed that my mother’s experience increased my chance of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, no-one could really quantify what that increase was. The “type” of ovarian cancer she had made it less likely to be related to a genetic change, such as Angelina’s experience with a BRCA1 mutation, but again no-one could categorically rule that out either.

If I could have had a screening test, such as a mammogram for breast cancer or a colonoscopy for bowel cancer maybe my decision would have been different. But in Australia there no recommended screening tests for ovarian cancer.

Although I took the practical approach and rationalised it in my head – it was only my ovaries and uterus and I no longer required them for reproductive purposes – the actual decision weighed heavily on me emotionally. I was subjecting my body to another round of surgery voluntarily, I would go into immediate menopause and there were physical hurdles I needed to address. However four months later the only change to my life is a little clear patch that replaces my hormones and peace of mind that I won’t need to keep thinking in the back of my head “Is that pain in my back ovarian cancer?”

I managed to dodge a bullet with my first experience of cancer, I am not so sure I would have been so lucky if it was ovarian rather than bowel.  Like Angelina, I have eliminated another cancer risk. There is no guarantee I won’t get another form of cancer, but it’s reassuring to know I am doing everything within my power to live a long and healthy life.  If there is one take-out from these stories is we do have choices. As Angelina Jolie said:

“It is not easy to make these decisions. But it is possible to take control and tackle head-on any health issue. You can seek advise, learn about the options and make choices that are right for you. Knowledge is power.”

Hear, hear Angelina – thank-you for shining a light on the importance of choice in cancer prevention.

Watch our On The Couch vids of Aussie women dealing with cancer

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