Sarah Smith, a parliamentary candidate for Dover and Deal last May was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer 18 months ago. Here she shares her experience with MPs, celebrities and fellow supporters at the House of Commons to mark the beginning of Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.
“My name is Sarah Smith and I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer 18 months ago, and unfortunately the likelihood is that I won’t live for another 18 months”
Ovarian cancer is a deadly killer. Each year more than 7,000 women learn they have the disease. And most find out too late. I want to use this precious five minutes to persuade you to go back to your constituencies and do something about this.
If I had won a stunning victory in May 2015 and I was now the MP for Dover, what would I ask about ovarian cancer? Four things I think.
- How many people in my constituency are affected?
- What it that like for them?
- What can I do that will actually make a difference?
- How many of your constituents are affected?
Using national statistics I’ve calculated that every year around 11 women in each constituency will get a diagnosis and seven will die of ovarian cancer. At any time there will be more than sixty women living with a diagnosis. Taking account of immediate local family and friends, health workers and those recently bereaved, I estimate that there will be more than 500 people in any constituency at any given time whose lives are acutely affected by ovarian cancer, and countless more in the wider economy as women give up work and caring responsibilities and have to be cared for themselves. And the impact is cumulative as it rolls on year after year. For thirty years there has been no significant improvement in outcomes or survival rates.
What does it feel like?
Here’s my experience. Eighteen months ago, with my two beautiful daughters having flown the nest, I’d taken a break from my professional work to do a PhD, and I was standing as a parliamentary candidate. I was full of energy, hope… and ambition to change the world – or Dover at least.
In the middle of my campaign, out of the blue, my tummy started to feel peculiar. I went to my GP on a Thursday, by Tuesday my abdomen had blown up like a late-term pregnancy. The next day I lay in an A&E cubicle as a sad-eyed junior doctor told me the swelling was ascites, and the most likely cause – advanced ovarian cancer.
Out of nowhere, my world turned upside down.
Every year, eleven women in your constituency have their world turned upside down. Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine what it feels like to learn that you won’t be around for your children in their moments of crisis – and joy. That you will never know your grandchildren. That you will leave your beloved partner alone and grieving.
In the months ahead you will negotiate your way through disappointment, grief and physical pain trying to cause your family and friends the least possible suffering. You will face up to the fact that you won’t finish those jobs, take those trips, see those people, read those books. And there is nothing you can do to change it.
Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of partners, children and parents. Watching a woman you love have her future taken away. Knowing you’ll lose her. Unable to stop her pain. Frightened of life without her.
Sad, angry and impotent – I think that’s maybe what it feels like.
What can you do that will really make a difference?
This disease kills because of lack of awareness. Ovarian cancer is not symptomless and early-stage diagnosis brings a 90% chance of cure, but currently most diagnoses are late stage at a terrible cost to families – and the NHS.
Women – and their GPs – too easily brush off the symptoms: bloating, digestive changes and fatigue as ‘normal for women’ or simply as signs of getting older. You can change this in your constituency. You can shine a light on this issue. You have convening power.
Here’s what you can do. Find out where your area stands in the ovarian cancer post-code lottery – sadly there is one. Ask for numbers on early detection rates in your region. Reach out to those in your constituency hit by ovarian cancer. Arrange a summit. (Ask the ovarian cancer charities for help.) Invite local stakeholders: the GP Commissioning Group, the local public health team and women leaders from local business, education and the community, make a particular effort to invite young women’s groups. And of course the press. Ask constituents affected by ovarian cancer to speak. Share what you have learned about local outcomes. Before the summit closes resolve together, to improve the chances of women in your area by raising awareness in order to improve early detection. Ask each group to make a specific commitment to a communication campaign and one event (let them know beforehand that you will be asking for this). Turn those commitments into a 12-month campaign. Select a couple of champions to co-ordinate and ask the local press to support it.
Make your personal commitment to deliver a number of awareness raising visits with the stakeholder groups. Keep the champions motivated by monthly contact from your office and by inviting them to come to Parliament and report to Sharon and the APPG on their progress.
At the end of 12 months reconvene the local summit and report back to the local press and constituents on goals achieved. You will demonstrate that you have seen the problem, acted, and made a difference – and your constituents will recognize that.
Ladies and Gentlemen. Women like me are dying of a horrible disease because we did not take little signs seriously – or our GPs didn’t. It’s a tragic waste of human and financial resources and you can help stop it. Please resolve now to go back to your constituencies and demonstrate that you are doing what you can to save your constituents and the NHS from the avoidable and terrible costs of ovarian cancer.