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‘Doctors Told My Mum She Was Experiencing Pregnancy Symptoms. It Was Ovarian Cancer’

It's been 30 years, and we still have no early detection test.

When Antoinetta Damiano was pregnant with her second child, things felt a bit.. different. She had a sore back, was tired all the time, and was constantly feeling nauseous. Doctors told her repeatedly that it was a side effect of being pregnant while also looking after a toddler.

“She gave birth and was in hospital for an additional week, and doctors couldn’t find anything,” her daughter, Sabrina Damiano, told marie claire Australia.

“They did a whole bunch of blood tests, and they couldn’t find anything wrong.”

After Antoinetta returned home, the symptoms continued. “She was still constantly experiencing night sweats, back aches, just not feeling well, and it was my dad who said we have to go back to the doctor,” Sabrina said.

Antoinetta Damiano
Antoinetta Damiano (Credit: Supplied)

When she returned to the hospital, doctors performed a pelvic ultrasound as a “last straw”. They finally discovered what was causing her pain: ovarian cancer.

“They were like, you have six months to live,” Sabrina said. “And she died in December.”

Antoinetta was 29 years old when she died in 1989. Sadly, survival rates for ovarian cancer have progressed very little since then. If ovarian cancer is found early, it has a high survival rate. Unfortunately, multiple clinical trials attempting to find an early detection test have failed.

Ovarian cancer is known as a ‘silent killer’ because there is no early detection test and symptoms are elusive. Most people—including women and people assigned female at birth—are diagnosed in the advanced stages of the disease, meaning the five year survival rate is dismally low (45.7%). One woman in Australia dies from ovarian cancer every eight hours.

“It’s so important [to talk about] because people will say, like, oh, you can get a pap smear,” Sabrina says, referring to the 50% of women who incorrectly believe a pap smear (or the cervical cancer screening which replaced it) will detect early signs of ovarian cancer.

“Once you have the symptoms, it’s too late—and the symptoms are so vague. Who hasn’t had a backache? Who doesn’t get nauseous? It’s all the symptoms that we would not think about.”

According to the Cancer Council, the most common symptoms of ovarian cancer are:

  • abdominal bloating
  • difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
  • frequent or urgent urination
  • back, abdominal or pelvic pain
  • constipation or diarrhoea
  • menstrual irregularities
  • tiredness
  • indigestion
  • pain during intercourse
  • unexplained weight loss or weight gain.

However, according to Dr Barbara Goff, a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Washington, GPs can often misdiagnose symptoms as something else entirely.

“When we asked [1,700 people with ovarian cancer] what their doctors told them was the cause of their symptoms, 15% had their symptoms attributed to irritable bowel disease, 12% to stress, 9% to gastritis, 6% to constipation, 6% to depression and 4% to some other cause,” she wrote for The Conversation. “Thirty percent were given treatment for a different condition. And 13% were told there was nothing wrong.”

When asked if she felt her mum would still be alive if there was an early detection test, Sabrina says “absolutely”.

“Obviously this is 30 years ago, so technology’s changed, but I feel like it’s such an underrated disease that kills more people than breast cancer, but gets half the attention. Because it’s internal, you can’t see it. I just want people to be so aware of these symptoms.”

She adds: “My mum was 29 years old. If it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone.”

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