Heart for Her shines a light on the extraordinary care The Royal offers women throughout every phase of their lives.
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An area of The Royal that often goes unnoticed is our chemotherapy and gynaecology wards. These busy departments, which see women from all over NSW every year, are greatly in need of basic equipment such as an ECG machine and a vital signs monitor.
This is despite the fact that each year, The Royal treats more than 350 women for new invasive cancers, performs 330 major operations and undertakes more than 1000 cycles of chemotherapy.
Your financial support will help us to continue to provide the highly specialised care these women need at a highly vulnerable time in their life. Women like Ashley Griffin.
In January this year, after suffering from what she thought was irritable bowel syndrome, and then a bout of bloating and spotting, Ashley had an ultrasound before seeing her gynaecologist. She could tell something was seriously wrong by the tone of the ultrasound technician’s voice.
The technician seemed to take a long time – “they clearly had issues getting at everything,” as Ashley recalls– and she was asked a lot of questions.
Two days later, her gynaecologist went through the report with her. To her dismay, Ashley realised things were still unclear. Because her bowel was distended, the technician had been unable to capture any images of her ovaries. All they could see was a mass, but they were still unsure it was a fibroid or the actual ovary itself.
After a battery of further tests, Ashley then had major surgery and had her ovaries, cervix, uterus and fallopian tubes removed, after which she spent ten days in respite care. It took two weeks of lab work to confirm the news she’d been dreading: she had a rare and aggressive form of ovarian cancer known as a mixed carcinsarcoma.
It’s been an emotional roller coaster ever since then for Ashley, who is on sick leave from her job as Puzzle Editor on mainstream magazines. At first, she was in a state of shock as she embarked on a death-defying journey with thousands of women across Australia every year. There have been many highs and lows along the way.
“I was literally giddy with joy that I was even able to be a candidate for surgery straight away. Quite often you have to do chemotherapy first. And some cases surgery may not be an option. So the fact that I could go straight to surgery was huge for me,” she recalls.
Under the care of Professor Michael Friedlander, Ashley then underwent chemotherapy at The Royal. She found the chemotherapy unit run by The Royal’s “queen of chemo” Jennie Duggan as “very calm and nurturing.”
“I loved having all the women around me chatting, reading, having a tea or having a snooze. There was a great sense of camaraderie, but you also didn’t have to make conversation if you didn’t feel like it,” she said. “I always felt very safe there, even though it was a stressful situation.”
Of course, there was also the despair about the pummelling her body was receiving. She spent her 60th birthday recently getting a pixie cut and buying turbans from the Cancer Council. “My hair started falling out in clumps. I felt weepy and traumatised when I looked in the mirror. It was very confronting, not just for me, but for my friends as well and loved ones to see me that way.
“It’s about your femininity but it’s also about how other people look at you and treat you. Suddenly people do a double take in the street or at the shops. You want to be normal, and just go about your business, but instead you’re getting sympathetic looks.
“The thing about ovarian cancer is if you start googling it, it’s a nightmare,” says Ashley. “The statistics for advanced ovarian cancer are so grim and it’s a cancer that recurs for the majority of patients when it is advanced.”
After the shock, and the intense anxiety, she’s come to a sense of acceptance about taking each day as it comes. She has learnt to focus on the positive and “literally not make a point of dwelling on all the negatives.”
She’s become something of an advocate for the Royal along the way, too. “I feel so blessed to live where I do, so close to The Royal Hospital for Women and that I have been able to access this extraordinary level of care. Imagine being in the US under that health care system and the enormous costs involved.
“Many women in NSW are in rural areas a long way from the nearest regional centre. Here in the Eastern Suburbs we have top class care right on your doorstep”.
“The RHW is a leader in this field and it needs to be supported so that more and more women get the chance for a better future. I can’t speak highly enough of the treatment I’ve had.”