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Living with ovarian cancer

A diagnosis of ovarian cancer marks the beginning of a journey full of physical, emotional, psychological and practical challenges. Some of these challenges are experienced by many women with ovarian cancer, others by only a few women.

Challenges can relate to the shock of a cancer diagnosis and fears about the future. Or they may be due to physical side effects of treatment such as nausea and fatigue. There are also practical aspects of treatment to deal with including costs and travel. More specific emotional problems include anxiety and depression.

Some of the treatments for ovarian cancer, particularly chemotherapy, can make you very tired. You may need to take a break from some of your normal activities for a while. Do not be afraid to ask for practical help from family and friends if you need it.

The emotional, physical and practical journey can take a different direction altogether if ovarian cancer spreads or comes back after treatment.

It's not always easy, but over time, most women find they are able to cope with the changes caused by their diagnosis and return to the things that are important to them.

You should also discuss with your doctor or physiotherapist which types of exercise will be suitable for you once you get home to gently to build up your strength and fitness.

Managing physical changes due to ovarian cancer

Women treated for ovarian cancer may experience a range of physical changes and symptoms. Physical changes associated with ovarian cancer can be due to the cancer itself or may be due to treatment side effects. Not all women will experience some of these symptoms. Your doctor should tell you about any side effects of drugs or other treatments that are recommended.

Follow-up visits are a good opportunity to discuss any symptoms or side effects of treatment. Regardless of whether a woman is having regular follow-up visits, she should talk to a health professional about any symptoms or side effects that are concerning her.

Some of the symptoms reported by women with ovarian cancer include:

Managing emotional changes due to ovarian cancer

Women describe a number of feelings after a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. A diagnosis of ovarian cancer can also have a significant impact on a woman's family and friends. It's likely that feelings will change or become more intense at different points in the cancer journey. Some people say their feelings are strongest when they're first diagnosed. Others say their emotions hit them later when they have time to reflect on what has happened. For many people these feelings ease with time.

Women who are experiencing feelings that are overwhelming them or preventing them from sleeping or doing everyday activities should talk to a member of their healthcare team. Treatments and support are available and can help.

Impact of an ovarian cancer diagnosis on partners

Many partners find the diagnosis and treatment of ovarian cancer distressing but are reluctant to seek help for themselves because they feel they need to be 'strong'. Partners can experience higher levels of stress than the person diagnosed with cancer. They also have different information needs. Everyone is different and will have their own way of coping.

It's important that women and their partners are open with each other about how they are feeling. Going to appointments together can provide valuable support and can give partners the opportunity to ask questions. Some partners choose to make a separate appointment with their doctor or another member of the team to discuss how they are feeling. Some couples choose to see a counsellor or other trained professional together.

Support groups

Some people find that having the opportunity to talk about their cancer and how they are feeling can help them feel less distressed. Peer support groups give women the chance to meet and talk with people who have been through or are going through similar experiences. Often people say they feel less anxious and alone and more optimistic about the future after meeting with a support group.

Not everyone likes support groups, so don't feel pressured to join one. Some women prefer one-on-one support from someone who has been through a similar experience.

Peer groups and one-on-one support don't always have to be face-to-face and can take place over the telephone or internet. For more information about support groups, including tele-support visit the Ovarian Cancer Australia website.

Many hospitals or cancer centres also offer programs where women and their families can receive information about cancer in a group and discuss how they are coping.

Sources: Cancer Australia (Living with ovarian cancer, What happens if ovarian cancer comes back?), NHS Choices, UK (Treating ovarian cancer, Living with ovarian cancer)

Last reviewed: August 2015

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