The two-year wait for a terminal ovarian cancer diagnosis, and the disease that kills more woman than our roads

After two years, a dozen trips to the doctor and the emergency department, Jenny Harland was convinced she was a hypochondriac.
Doctors put her abdominal pain, severe bloating and shortness of breath down to endometriosis, a severe disease which impacts fertility. Or wrote it off as anxiety.

But the 36-year-old from Island Bay, Wellington, had a rare, stage-four ovarian cancer. Laparoscopic surgery to treat endometriosis she didnt have discovered tumours in her ovaries, which had spread throughout her body, and she was given five years to live. She and her partner had been trying for a baby.

After I woke up they told me I had cancer, but I couldnt come to terms with it because I was dealing with the grief of not being a mum, she said.


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Supplied
Jenny Harland waited two years to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer is the least survivable women's cancer. Its survival rate is less than half that of those diagnosed with breast or prostate cancer. About 300 new cases are diagnosed and 208 women die each year. The cancer is rarely found in its early stages, and Harlands stage four diagnosis meant it was inoperable. Chemotherapy didnt work.

She is calling for better screening processes and better awareness of its symptoms. She visited a GP about 10 times with her symptoms, but was never given a blood test, which wouldve detected she had cancer. She was offered UTI tests and had three ultrasounds.

Supplied
Jenny Harland underwent chemotherapy for her ovarian cancer, but it didnt work.

She took herself to ED when she had shortness of breath, but was told she was probably having an anxiety attack.

Early detection is the answer. If I had had it [diagnosis] within 18 months it might be a matter of having a hysterectomy or removing an ovary. I couldve had the cancer removed.

But she might have been diagnosed sooner if there was a national framework, Tash Crosby said.

Crosby is part of the 15 per cent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer in its early stages. She went on to found the Talk Peach Gynaecological Foundation and handed a 10,000 signature petition that called for national diagnostic guidelines to be developed and better treatment options to Parliament on Wednesday.

Dom Thomas/RNZ
Petition organiser Jane Ludemann, left, and Talk Peach Gynaecological Foundation founder Tash Crosby stand in Parliament grounds in front of 182 white crosses representing the number of people who died of ovarian cancer in 2020.

There is no proven method of screening for ovarian cancer in the general population, and it is not detected with cervical smear tests.

More women die of ovarian cancer than on the roads every year," she said. It kills a woman every 48 hours.

I think there is definitely not enough awareness and definitely not enough government funding. We need the Government to get on board with this.

Harland has now been given up to 15 years to live but said nothing is certain.


She now has a blood test every six weeks and scan every six months to check if her cancer is growing, but for now she is focussing on her wellbeing and enjoying time with her partner.

Children are off the cards and I have made peace with that. I can just focus on me and trying to make memories, she said.

Diana Sarfati, chief executive of Te Aho o Te Kahu, the Cancer Control Agency, said a report into variation of quality of care in gynaecological cancer, including ovarian, would be published in the middle of next year.

Ovarian cancer symptoms can be difficult to notice, and so far the studies that have looked in to screening approaches to early diagnosis for ovarian cancer havent been successful in reducing mortality, she said.

Ensuring early diagnosis and high quality consistent treatment of cancers remains a focus.

She said incidence of ovarian cancer in New Zealand had decreased since 1996.

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