“I’ve always had this saying, ‘It is what it is,’” says Sara Ingram. It’s an attitude that has seen her through some of the toughest moments of her life, including the day in October 2017 when she was diagnosed with stage 3C ovarian cancer.
The Auckland-based mum was 41 years old at the time, and completely shocked. “I had what I now know were lots of typical symptoms. Despite having a good diet and exercising regularly, I was really bloated, urinating frequently, had lower back pain… I thought maybe I had a stomach ulcer. I wasn’t expecting cancer at all,” she says.
At stage 3C, the cancer had spread throughout her abdomen, lymph nodes and liver. She was facing a five-year survival rate of 39 per cent. “That was really hard to take onboard. As a single parent, a teacher, it just didn’t fit in with my life. I wasn’t in a position to leave. I wasn’t ‘done’,” she says. “I thought, ‘Why shouldn’t I be part of that 39 per cent? Why shouldn’t I be the one story you hear about?’ So I put my head down and got on with it.”
After three brutal rounds of chemotherapy, she underwent surgery to remove her ovaries, fallopian tubes, omentum and the fatty tissue around her abdomen. “I was told I’d have part of my bowel removed and need a stoma, but when I woke up, the surgery had been incredibly successful,” she says. “I didn’t need the stoma. The chemo had worked wonders.”
By April 2018, she had finished her final rounds of chemo. Less than a year after her diagnosis, she was back at work. Ingram realises she is one of the lucky ones. Ovarian cancer has the worst death rate out of the five gynaecological cancers.
Every 48 hours, one New Zealand woman dies from the disease. While her attitude is positive, Ingram struggled through many cancer milestones. “A lot of people say this, but one of the hardest things was losing my hair,” she says. “It seems ridiculous when you’re faced with something so life threatening, but when you look in the mirror and see the way other people look at you, it’s hard. It’s like losing your identity.”
Before her diagnosis, Ingram knew little about ovarian cancer. Like many women, she had her regular smear and breast checks, but had no idea of the symptoms of ovarian cancer. Unlike cervical and breast cancer, there isn’t a simple screening test and it normally has to be diagnosed through a CT scan. This is why awareness of symptoms is crucial. And Ingram’s experience is not unique.
“Ovarian cancer is the most deadly gynaecological cancer, and kills more women than New Zealand’sannual road toll and more than melanoma. Yet it remains underfunded and largely ignored,” says Jane Ludemann from Cure Our Ovarian Cancer, who recently launched a petition demanding better government funding for ovarian cancer education campaigns, access to testing and therapies, and research.
“It is extraordinary that the government spends more than $126 million on medical research through the Health Research Council (HRC) every year. In 2018, 2019 and (to date )in 2020, the HRC has not funded any ovarian cancer research at all.”
“We don’t have the funding for medication, early diagnosis or treatment. I know that women in my situation just fall through the gaps,” says Ingram. Research is the key to shifting the outcomes around this deadly disease, she says. “It’s really important we invest in early diagnosis tools and education so that women can be diagnosed at stage 1, have a quick surgery, get rid of the tiny tumour and get on with their lives, instead of becoming one of our low survival rate statistics.”
While Ingram was lucky to have a doctor who spotted the symptoms, many women are misdiagnosed or ignored by medical professionals. “Ovarian cancer has a reputation as a ‘silent killer’ and that’s absolutely not true. This is just a phrase that gets the medical profession off the hook for not diagnosing early,” she explains.
“When women come forward with symptoms, medical professionals need to do the tests. I know all of those things come at a cost, but women are being sent away all the time with diagnoses such as IBS and menopause when it’s just not the case.
“Women need to advocate for themselves, to not be afraid to stand up and say ‘No, I’m not happy with that diagnosis, I want further investigation’. For this to happen, we need to make women aware that these cancers exist, and show them what to look out for. If they don’t have this information, they can’t connect the dots.”
A self-described ‘active relaxer’, Ingram always found a way to focus on the positive during her cancer treatment. “When I was sick, I started an Instagram page called Philosophical Ramblings of a Cancer Girl. It was an amazing creative outlet for me. I found that writing about my experience not only helped me, but other people. Friends and family who were trying to support me but didn’t understand what I was going through, it helped them see where I was at. And getting messages from other survivors and people around the world was a bonus that I didn’t expect, and that still brings me a lot of satisfaction.”
True to her nature, when COVID-19 arrived and Ingram found herself in lockdown with more free time, she filled it with another creative outlet – crochet. Within weeks she launched BeaniBros, a small business selling crocheted beanies, headbands, toys and facemasks, with 10 per cent of all profits going towards a gynaecological research foundation.
Looking back at her cancer journey, Ingram is grateful for the resilience tools she developed both before and after her diagnosis. “I’ve had to be resilient in the past. I went through a really difficult divorce, all of my family are in the UK so I’ve been really isolated. I realised some time ago that I have to rely on myself and that only I can make things better,” she says.
“Having a cancer diagnosis changes everything. Now I do the things that make me happy. It’s about always looking forward, not having regrets and accepting mistakes. Everybody has to deal with tough stuff. It’s about taking that stuff and seeing that something great can be born out of it.”
It’s now been two years since Ingram’s last treatment. Since then, she’s had oncology appointments every four months to check whether the cancer has come back. Despite a few minor scares, it’s shown no sign of returning yet, and recently, Ingram reached a cancer milestone worthy of celebrating.
“Because it’s been two years since the end of my treatment, I’ve moved to six-monthly check ups. It sounds little but it’s a huge thing. Every year that I’m not re-diagnosed, it changes my prognosis by a few percent. Five years is the next big goal. If I can get there without it returning, the future will look even better.”