This Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, one young Portstewart-based woman tells of the shock diagnosis which changed her life and calls for better women’s health services in Northern Ireland.

It’s been three months to the day since 26-year-old Sarah Nally underwent life-saving and life-changing surgery following a shock diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

A former swim teacher on the North Coast and undergraduate at Ulster University, Coleraine, the health and fitness fan was given the devastating diagnosis last October, after doctors found a mass the size of a baby’s head on her ovary.

Sarah, who is originally from Monaghan but had been living in Portstewart for eight years to continue her Master’s degree at Jordanstown and Belfast, had been suffering from what was believed to be recurring urinary tract infections (UTIs).

Her periods had become so painful, a doctor recommended she go back on the contraceptive pill to help and a request to be referred onto a specialist was turned down.

But Sarah instinctively knew something was wrong and returned home, where a scan carried out at University Hospital Limerick revealed the huge mass.

On December 2, Sarah underwent major surgery, having a full hysterectomy. And while she knows the surgery was necessary to remove the cancer, it also means that she can never conceive her own child – a heart-breaking blow which she admits she is struggling to deal with.

But the brave PHD student is now determined to speak out about women’s health and to encourage and empower other women to keep pushing for specialist help if they feel something isn’t right.

Taking up her story, Sarah says: “During lockdown, I had two visits to Causeway Hospital and was given antibiotics both times for UTIs.

“Between January and June 2022, I had three to four more UTls, including a really bad one on holidays in Portugal.

“My periods were really bad at this time, so I asked a doctor to refer me to a gynaecologist but was told no and advised to go back on the pill as the waiting list was too long.

“I left that day in tears. I knew in my heart that something was wrong.”

Sarah was doing her PHD at the time, which was funded by the Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke Association, and was offered a simultaneous teaching post at the University of Limerick so moved back home.

Her health was getting worse though. She was exhausted all the time and feeling nauseous, so she went to see an on-call doctor, who took one look at her, wrote a letter and packed her off to hospital.

There, her blood and urine tests came back clear but when doctors picked up on the pain in her pelvis, she underwent several scans.

Everything after this, Sarah says, moved ‘superfast’. She was told they had found a mass the size of a baby’s head on an ovary and within the space of three days, Sarah had been diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer, thickening of the stomach lining and fluid in her stomach.

“Once I was in the system, the care I received was phenomenal,” says Sarah. “The cancer team was amazing, and I put my total faith in them.”

Sarah says her own personal faith helped her too and although hearing the word ‘mass’ was a bombshell, she says she never questioned ‘why me?’.

After initial examinations in Limerick, she was referred onto the Mater Hospital in Dublin for specialised surgery to remove her stomach lining, undergoing two operations.

Sarah was then told she was a ‘borderline’ cancer case and that further tests would reveal if it was cancer or not. Prior to further surgery, she was asked for consent to remove her bowel, uterus or ovaries if they were found to be cancerous and she agreed. That’s when doctors discovered that it was in fact cancer.

“I took the objective approach,” she says. “I told them ‘If it doesn’t look good, take it away’.

“When I came round, I asked if they’d removed my bowel and if I had a stoma bag. That was my first thought. The consultant had tears in her eyes and told me no, I didn’t have a bag but that they’d had to remove my ovaries and womb instead.

“I am angry a bit because I was told it was a slow growing cancer and maybe it could’ve been picked up earlier. I knew all along there was something wrong.”

Recovery has been painful, both physically and emotionally. Aside from the ‘horrendous’ agony she finds herself in, she can’t exercise for a year – something which is difficult for a student whose PHD is based on the importance of staying active.

And, of course, there’s the profound sadness she feels at not being able to have her own baby. Sarah had always wanted to be a mum; now that dream has been cruelly snatched away.

The surgery itself went well as in it removed all the visible cancer, though Sarah, who’s returning to the North Coast to complete her PHD, pragmatically points out that there’s a 50% chance it could return.

She is on a strong hormone blocker which has intense side effects and is also dealing with early menopause but says she’s grateful to be alive and to her family, friends and boyfriend Jack for their unwavering support.

While she comes to terms with the life­-altering repercussions of the surgery, she wants to use her voice to raise awareness of ovarian cancer and a wider need for better health services for women.

“It’s Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month this month but none of my friends or me ever thought about it or that any of us would get it,” she says.

“When I talk to my friends, there is a general consensus though that our voices aren’t always listened to, particularly around women’s health, menopause, periods, sex.

“In France and Germany, women are entitled to an ultrasound once they hit puberty. Here, it’s difficult to even get an appointment with a doctor or specialist.

“If you have symptoms for a few weeks or more, go and get them checked out. Symptoms include stomach pain, persistent bloating, feeling full after eating or needing to wee more frequently. Mine were fatigue, feeling sick and back and pelvic pain.

“You know your own body better than anyone else. Don’t be fobbed off and don’t be afraid to go and get help.”

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