Frocking up for ovarian cancer

Sufferer Helen Hatzis tells her heartbreaking story to Neos Kosmos during Frocktober, the ovarian cancer awareness month

It’s not just having the diagnosis, but it’s also dealing with the hysterectomy and losing your female identity.

The term silent killer might get thrown around a lot, but for ovarian cancer, it’s no exaggeration.
There’s no detection test and the symptoms appear harmless – stomach pain and fatigue won’t have you running to the doctor every time.
That’s why the prognosis for women suffering from ovarian cancer is so bad. The reality is, most get diagnosed in the third and fourth stages of the cancer, and have only just a 45 per cent chance of living past five years.
Ovarian cancer sufferer and ambassador Helen Hatzis says she was in and out of doctors clinics for about 12 months before an ultrasound revealed her tumours.
“There’s nothing that doctors can do to test for it, you can have a vaginal ultrasound, but even with that, they can’t tell you if you’ve got cancer, you’ve got to actually have a biopsy,” she tells Neos Kosmos.
“Being a gynaecological cancer, it’s so invasive on every level.”
For many sufferers, keeping the cancer at bay doesn’t just mean bouts of radiation and chemotherapy, but a radical hysterectomy that removes a woman’s ovaries.
What many don’t realise is, with the removal, a woman is thrust into early menopause, whatever their age.
The physical trauma is surprisingly easier to deal with. They can accept that surgery is the best way to prevent reoccurrences, but the emotional and psychological turmoil that goes with the disease is a much longer process.
“It’s not just having the diagnosis, but it’s also dealing with the hysterectomy and losing your female identity,” Helen says.
That aspect of female identity has been targeted by the fundraising campaign, Frocktober. In the month of October, women are asked to dust off their ‘fabulous frocks’ and wear a dress every day of the month.
Relating such a deadly disease with an act that makes a woman look and feel her best is a match made in heaven.
Last week, a Melbourne group for Frocktober organised ‘Get Your Frock On’, a runway show dedicated to cancer ambassador Helen Hatzis and the cause.
The classy event was filled not just with women, but with men and young supporters, showing just how many people this disease affects. As much as it is a female disease, the flow on effects are just as devastating.
For Helen, as she undergoes another chemotherapy cycle this week, the event was a way to honour her children, who have watched and helped their mother battle the illness.
“I want to be here for my kids, my daughter’s doing VCE at the moment and that’s pretty full on,” Helen says.
MC for the evening Peter Pangelo rightfully singled out just how random and unforgiving the disease can be, while showing that awareness still has a long way to go.
Currently the survival rate for breast cancer is at 89 per cent thanks to much higher awareness and better funded campaigns. The same mutated gene (BRCA) that can develop breast cancer in women also develops ovarian cancer.
Research and funding might be looking towards finding a cure, but sometimes just making progress in developing better treatment options is a godsend for sufferers.
“The more they research, the more they come up with alternative treatment options, perhaps a better drug, a better period of remission or to eradicate the disease,” Helen says.
Although she might say her story isn’t unique, her dedication is. When diagnosed in 2008, it became a goal to raise awareness and create a lifelong relationship with the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation.
She saw first hand how ambassadors would be taken away in their prime by the disease, and knew that she wanted to take up a position to help.
“I do feel that obligation to get out there, I feel passionate about awareness and doing anything I can to help really,” she says.
And her work has gone above and beyond. She knows just what a human story can do and rather than just throwing statistics around, she decided to write a book to better explain the chaos of ovarian cancer.
Launched in 2011, the book, More Than Luck has raised much needed funds for the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation.
But, after five years battling the disease, she’s still not in the clear. Ovarian cancer has a high rate of reoccurrence in sufferers, even for women who decide to have a hysterectomy. In five years, Helen has been in and out of hospital three times thanks to the cancer coming back, each time having to go through harsh radiation.
That frequency is why the disease is so unrelenting from diagnosis to remission.
The cause is not yet known fully. Women above 50 have the highest risk of developing the disease, and genetics and lifestyle do play a part. Greeks especially have an increased risk, as Europeans have the highest incidence of ovarian cancer and it is the fifth most commonly diagnosed female cancer in Europe.
On average three Australian women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer a day and one dies every 10 hours.
Such high numbers of new sufferers is why finding an early detection test is so important.
A simple blood test or a scan would do wonders in early detection and increase the low 45 per cent survival rate.
Frocktober is still collecting much needed funds, and invites women to dress up, organise ‘frocktail parties’ or pass a hat around the office amongst other things.
For more information and to donate, visit www.everydayhero.com.au/event/frocktober