Ovarian cancer is more common in older women, with most cancers affecting women over the age 50. This can mean younger women with ovarian cancer may feel isolated and feeling their specific needs and concerns are not being addressed. This page will provide you with information and links to other services available to you.
The OCA Younger Women’s Project is a pilot program commencing in March 2019. It is a series of 12 online facilitated support and information sessions, delivered monthly for 1.5 hours with approximately 5 – 8 women participating in each session with a health professional facilitator.
Laura Langdon who is a member of the Younger Women’s Project advisory group commented “one of the most difficult things about having ovarian cancer as a young woman is the sense of isolation; feeling like the odd one out with the ‘wrong’ type of cancer and at the ‘wrong’ age. I am so excited about this new program because it will enable young women to connect with each other, and to access support that is both cancer-specific and age-appropriate. Nothing else like it currently exists, so this program will make a huge difference.”
For more information contact our support team by calling 1300 660 334 or by email.
If you were still having periods (menstruating) before your surgery and both ovaries are removed, you will have what is known as a surgical menopause. You will no longer produce the same levels of the hormones oestrogen and progesterone and your periods will stop immediately. Instead of a gradual transition that usually happens with age, you may experience a sudden change. Chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment can also result in early menopause.
Many women find this a huge shock, treatment related menopause results in feelings of loss and grief: loss of control, loss of choices about having a family, and loss of part of your identity as a woman. . The decrease in hormones can result in symptoms such as hot flushes and vaginal dryness, as well as health risks such as an increased risk of osteoporosis and heart disease. Seek out information and support as soon as possible.
What can help?
There are many self-help techniques, lifestyle changes and medicines (Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and non-hormonal) that can help relieve the symptoms. Not every woman can have HRT after treatment for ovarian cancer. Your treating doctor can give you more information. It’s really important to work through your feelings. Try to relieve your stress in ways you know used to help you. This may involve writing in a journal, drawing, listening to music, walking or doing yoga. Always ask for professional help if your feelings of loss, depression and anxiety continue beyond 2 weeks.
Your sexuality is an important part of who you are: it’s about your self-image, how you express yourself sexually, and your sexual feelings for other people. It is not just about having sex. Ovarian cancer and its treatment can profoundly affect the way you feel about yourself and your body, your sexual desire and your sexual relationship with others, whether or not you have a partner.
- If your surgery has resulted in menopause, hormonal changes can lower your libido (desire for sex) and cause vaginal dryness.
- Having your reproductive organs removed or not being able to have children can leave some women feeling a great sense of loss, or feel they are no longer complete as a woman.
- Feeling unwell, feeling physically and emotionally tired, coping with the nausea and fatigue of chemo, feeling depressed or anxious, being in pain – can all reduce your interest in and desire for being intimate (talking, cuddling, as well as having sex).
- Body changes, scarring, hair loss and other physical changes may make you feel less attractive. You may not want anyone to touch you or talk about your physical appearance.
- If you are not currently in a relationship, you may be worried about how a future partner will react to your illness, your feelings and your body.
WHAT CAN HELP?
Understanding these changes, communicating about them openly and finding ways to ease anxiety can help you feel better.
- Communicating openly about our sexuality can be difficult, but it is so important. Sometimes not communicating your feelings clearly to each other can lead one person to make untrue assumptions. For example, a partner may avoid or no longer initiate intimacy, such as cuddling, kissing, talking or sex, because they are trying to be sensitive to the other’s needs. This may be interpreted as feeling you are no longer attractive to your partner.
- Plan intimacy for times when you think you will have the most energy. You might like to make a ‘date’ with your partner, which can be a fun way to build an emotional connection or sexual arousal. There are many different ways of being intimate and enjoying physical closeness: touching, stroking, cuddling, kissing, massaging or simply holding each other can be satisfying additions to or alternatives to sex.
- Take it slowly and use creativity to work out what feels good. Any problems usually get better with time and practice.
- Vaginal moisturisers such as Replens® and water-based and silicone lubricants can help make sexual activity more comfortable.
- Talk to a counsellor, sex therapist or a doctor with specialist training in sexuality and cancer.
Some cancer treatments can affect a woman’s ability to have a child (her fertility). If you wish to have children now or think you might in the future, it is very important to talk to your team of specialists before your treatment begins. There have been many advances in fertility treatments. Options for preserving your fertility may include:
- Surgery to protect your ovaries from treatments
- Fertility-sparing surgery
- Embryo banking/freezing
- Egg banking/freezing; ovarian tissue banking/freezing.
Not all options will be suitable for all women and some women may not be able to use any of them. Several factors will affect your choices for fertility preservation before and after treatment for ovarian cancer.
- The stage of your cancer
- The type of treatment planned.
For more information, ask a member of your healthcare team to refer you to a local fertility preservation service. If you have more advanced epithelial ovarian cancer, your treatment will most likely involve removal of both your ovaries and your uterus and you will not be able to become pregnant. You may have an overwhelming sense of loss and feel angry and cheated. Talking about your feelings and getting some emotional support can help you deal with your loss. You may also want to speak with your specialist about other options for having children, such as adoption and surrogacy.
If you have children, you may worry about how to tell them about your cancer. It’s a natural instinct to want to protect children of any age from upsetting news. Talking to children as soon as possible, will help to allay many of their fears and help them to cope better. If you don’t feel able to tell your children by yourself, you may like to ask your partner, a grandparent or another loving relative or friend to help. How much you tell your children will depend on their age, but all children need to know that:
- They did not cause your cancer and they can’t make it go away.
- Cancer is not contagious: they cannot catch it by touching you or being close to you.
- You are going to have treatment and your doctors are going to do everything they can to help you get well.
- It is ‘normal’ to have side effects from treatment – like feeling tired and losing your hair.
- Life at home will be different, but they will always be cared for and you will always love them.
If you are worried about your children and how they are coping, talk to your doctor or a social worker in your treatment team. There are many different types of trained counsellors who can help.
Deciding to return to work will depend on your health, financial situation and personal priorities. In addition to income, work can provide satisfaction and an opportunity to mix with other people. You are the best judge of when you will be ready to return to work. Members of your healthcare team can also give you guidance on this.
Most women agree it’s very helpful to go back to work for short periods and then increase their hours and/or days, as they feel better. If you have to return to work, this may cause some anxiety and fear. Whether you are returning to an old job, or starting a new one, you may face challenges with your colleagues.
How much should I tell my employer and colleagues?
While you are not obligated to tell your employer that you are receiving treatment for, or recovering from, ovarian cancer, it can make working life easier for everyone if you are able to be open about this. You may ask for your condition to remain confidential. Your employer must respect your right to privacy.
If you do decide to tell co-workers about your cancer, you can discuss it with them personally, or ask a member of your human resources team, manager or a co-worker to talk to staff on your behalf. Just like your friends and family, co-workers can be unsure of what to say or feel awkward about how to approach you.
Practicalities of returning to work
Talk to your employer and healthcare team about a realistic plan for the pace of your return to work and times when you will need to be absent. Give-and-take on both sides will make your return to work easier. Your employer needs to be flexible, because your needs may change as treatment progresses. Try to give your employer as much notice as you can when you need to take time off. Some organisations have employee assistance programs where you can receive free and confidential counselling if you are experiencing difficulties in the transition back to work.
Some women may be returning to study after treatment finishes. Taking time out of study during your treatment can be very upsetting. Like returning to work, returning to study carries its own set of changes. Side effects from treatment, such as fatigue and chemo brain, can make travelling to class and concentrating in classes very difficult. You may have to go back to study part time, which means you will finish your course later. This can cause difficulties.
It can help to let your teachers know about your cancer and its treatment. That way they may be able to arrange tutorials and extra classes around times when you are able to rest in between sessions. Most universities, colleges and schools will have student counsellors who may be able to help you as well. These services can help arrange for things like flexibility in assignment deadlines or rest periods during exams.
Ovarian cancer has a huge impact on the day-to-day parts of your life. Preparing meals, paying bills, having clean clothes and caring for children doesn’t go away when you are sick. There are many people and organisations that can help.
Friends and family
When you accept offers of support, it helps your friends and family to feel useful, and it allows you to conserve your energy and focus on your recovery. However, for some people it may be difficult to accept or ask for help.
Gather My Crew is an easy-to-use online tool that allows friends, family and colleagues to discover what you need and how they can help.
There are many different types of support services available.
Good places to start include:
- Your family GP
- A nurse, doctor, or social worker at your treatment hospital
- OCA Helpline 1300 660 334
- Your local council.
The types of support services available include:
- community or district nurses
- private nursing agencies
- home care nursing services
- volunteer respite care services.
Each service will provide different kinds of help. Some may have costs involved, while others will be free. Your healthcare team can help you access these services or you can search the internet for a specific service that suits your needs.
Help with children
- Mummy’s Wish is an organization that helps mothers with children under the age of 12 with practical help such as house cleaning.
- Australian Government Child Care Access Hotline 1800 670 305 is a free telephone service to help you find a childcare service and can provide information on assistance in paying childcare fees.
- mychild.gov.au is an Australian Government website providing more information on child care options and assistance.
This page was last updated February 2019.