To this day Rita McInerney doesn’t know exactly what drove her to request an ovarian scan but she is thankful that she did.

The ultrasound scan showed up a 6cm tumour in her right ovary and now, six years on, thanks to early diagnosis and treatment, she is doing well and feels up to telling her story.

Rita, a mother of two and grandmother of four, was reared on a farm in Kinvara, Co Galway but now lives in Shankill, Co Dublin.

“You absorb a lot of stuff from the media [about illnesses] that you’re not even aware of, so maybe that had something to do with it,” she says. “I was conscious, also, of looking after my health as I aged and while I had a healthy lifestyle and didn’t have symptoms usually associated with ovarian cancer like bloating, I did experience recurrent urinary tract infections (UTIs) for several years. Overall, I think I had something in my head about the silent nature of ovarian cancer.”

Following the scan where a cyst rather than a tumour was mentioned, Rita set about finding a consultant. Eventually she found one who had just returned from abroad and had space to see her the following week. She mentions luck again and gratitude for finding him and being able to afford private medical insurance.

“I think of people on public waiting lists and the worry that must be,” she says. “Who knows what the outcome would have been if I’d had to wait. Again, I was lucky. The consultant I found was top notch and had expertise in ovarian cancer. I have been very lucky and blessed with everything related to my cancer really.”

While her scan results were a shock, she didn’t panic.

“I was told it was low grade early stage cancer, which meant it hadn’t spread anywhere. That meant a huge amount to me. I was very practical about it all, saying ‘what do we do next’? I think that was my defence mechanisms kicking in. I was told that it would have to be surgically removed and all I was thinking was ‘I need to get the surgery done before Sorcha’s wedding.’”

Sorcha, Rita and her husband Finbarr’s daughter, was getting married early in June 2017.

Following extra scans to make sure the cancer hadn’t spread, Rita had surgery to remove both ovaries on 16 March 2019 in the Mater Private Hospital.

“I did have anxieties about the surgery, of course, but I faced up to the fears. You just put your best foot forward and plough ahead,” she says.

Fear of chemotherapy

The jury was out initially on whether she needed chemotherapy after surgery or not and it was then that she realised this treatment was her biggest fear.“You hear so many stories, about nausea and fatigue and so on. I’d had reactions to medications over the years so when I was told I needed it I thought ‘I’m doomed’.”

Losing her hair was also a major concern and for that reason she asked to delay chemo until her daughter’s wedding was over. Her 18 weeks of chemotherapy began immediately after the wedding in nearby St Vincent’s University Hospital.

“You couldn’t believe how big an issue losing your hair is,” she says. “It was for me anyway. That’s why I was glad when my GP told me of the ‘cold cap’ that can be used with chemotherapy.”

This is where a special cap is worn prior and during chemotherapy treatment. Its cooling effect reduces blood flow to the scalp, helping to reduce the amount of chemotherapy medication that reaches this area.

“Freezing your scalp means that you’ll lose some of your hair but not all of it,” explains Rita.

Ultimately Rita lost 60% of her hair but growth restarted immediately after she finished chemo.

“I wore a beanie hat whenever I went out, with some of my remaining hair showing under it,” she says. “The fear of losing it, as my consultant said, was more about privacy than vanity. My hair came back 100% which I was delighted about.”

Not as bad as expected

Chemo wasn’t as bad an experience overall as she’d expected either. “It affects everyone differently,” she says. “The cold cap was a bit uncomfortable but I managed it well and while there was some sleeplessness due to medication to counteract side effects, it wasn’t so bad. The Tuesday after each Friday session I always had to stay in bed though.”

Rita pays tribute to the staff in the oncology unit.

“They were all amazing – compassionate and empathetic. My husband Finbarr was a rock as were my daughter and son, Sorcha and Cormac and their spouses, Kieran and Sarah and my friends. Again I feel blessed to have had such good medical care and support.”

Need for privacy

All the way through treatment, Rita was disinclined to tell anyone outside family and close friends that she was being treated for cancer.

“Some people who have cancer don’t mind talking about it and disclosing their hair loss and everyone is different in how they respond to things, but not doing that was a way of coping for me. My modus operandi was to stay private and deal with what I had to deal with in the best way I could and look after my family.”

I was told that it would have to be surgically removed and all I was thinking was ‘I need to get the surgery done before Sorcha’s wedding’

Six years on, though, she has changed her mind about telling people.

“I want to talk about it for the benefit of others,” she says.

Over the following four years, Rita had regular check-ups and scans and since 2021 she has begun to relax.

“My consultant told me he didn’t need to see me anymore two years ago.

There were times when I had concerns but I was reassured from the get go that I was really lucky, that all the cancer was gone, that surgery and chemo was successful and that I was cancer free.”

Rita continues to live life to the full, even adding a climb of Mt Brandon to her 2022 achievements. A retired civil servant, she now volunteers as a parent mentor with the support organisation Le Chéile.

Message for readers

Obviously concerned for others, Rita finds it difficult to hear about young women who think they have digestive problems but go on to find out that they have stage four ovarian cancer.

“I would love to think that their GPs would suggest an ultrasound ovarian scan for them, sooner rather than later,” she says.

“It is very simple and not invasive. For women my age, too, in their late 50s or 60s, I would highly recommend that they see a gynaecologist and have everything checked. Why not? It’s what saved me.”

Note: It was another woman in the media telling of how she had recurrent urinary tract infections ahead of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer that prompted Rita to tell her story.

“I don’t know if there is a connection but that was my experience too. All I know is that the UTIs stopped after the surgery.”

Sharon O’ Toole, Senior Research Fellow

Departments of Obstetrics and Gynaecology/Histopathology, founder of the Irish Network of Gynaecological Oncology (INGO)

Symptoms for ovarian cancer can vary greatly, but experiencing recurrent urinary tract infections (UTI’s) would come under the “changes in bladder habits” mentioned in the list of symptoms below). Sometimes tumours can get big and may press on the bladder. If UTIs recur you should, of course, be referred for an ultrasound scan and have further investigations if appropriate, to make sure everything is okay. It’s the persistence of any of the symptoms that is key. If, for example, you’re experiencing bloating once a month that’s one thing, but if it persists, that symptom should be checked out.

Ovarian cancer

Almost 400 women in Ireland are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year. It is the fourth most common cancer in women. The main treatment is surgery. Other treatments include chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

The cause of ovarian cancer is unknown. It usually affects women who have been through the menopause.

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is when the normal cells in the ovary change and grow to form a tumour. Because the ovaries are deep in the pelvis, if the tumour gets bigger, it may affect nearby organs. This can include the bladder or the bowel. This in turn can lead to symptoms.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer can be hard to spot at first, as there may be no symptoms or only mild, vague symptoms early on.

Symptoms include:

  • Bloated feeling.
  • Persistent swollen tummy.
  • Pain or dragging sensation in your lower abdomen (tummy), back or legs.
  • Vague indigestion or nausea.
  • Poor appetite and feeling full quickly.
  • Changes in your bowel or bladder habits: e.g. constipation or needing to pass water urgently.
  • Feeling tired all the time.
  • Irregular periods or bleeding after menopause.
  • Pain during sex.
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge or bleeding (rare).
  • All these symptoms can be caused by conditions other than cancer, but it is important to go to the GP and get any unusual changes checked out. (Source: Irish Cancer Society)

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