Why the joy of hearing unborn baby’s heartbeat turned to horror

FOR a few minutes, Rachel Bamber experienced the "absolute joy" of hearing her tiny unborn baby's heartbeat.

But her happiness at being 10 weeks pregnant with her first child, her "miracle baby" conceived in her 40s, quickly turned to "sheer horror" when a 10cm mass on her left ovary was discovered during a scan.

Two weeks later, on July 15, 2015, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

"I spent the first couple of weeks saying to doctors: 'Don't do anything that's going to affect my baby'," she said.

Rachel Bamber, who was pregnant with her first child when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Picture: Peter Wallis
Rachel Bamber, who was pregnant with her first child when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Picture: Peter Wallis

"But then a doctor sat me down and said: 'If we do nothing, you won't be here at Christmas'. There's no way you can have this baby."

Apart from the tumour on her ovary, Ms Bamber, then 44, had another 3cm mass and "four or five" spots of cancer in her abdomen. Doctors advised chemotherapy to shrink the cancer and then surgery three months later to remove her uterus, ovaries, cervix, fallopian tubes, appendix and her omentum - a sheet of tissue that stretches over the liver, intestines and stomach.

She lost her baby and her chances of becoming a mum.

Ms Bamber, who had been made redundant from a job in human resources before her unexpected pregnancy, split from her partner during her treatment and also lost her house.

"My life was broken," she said. "I'd fallen apart. My life just didn't resemble anything even remotely what I'd worked hard to get and build and put together."

In February, 2016, following surgery and another three months of chemotherapy, she was told she had "no evidence of disease".

Ten months later, she went back to work on a short-term contract, but just as she was starting to pull her life together again, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2017.

Ms Bamber had more surgery to remove a tumour in her breast, another course of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

Now 48, she has decided to tell her moving story to cast a spotlight on what she sees as inequities between funding and support provided for different types of cancer, with gynaecological cancers, including ovarian, missing out.

"It can certainly be very tough to be sitting in a chemo chair and the person next to you gets a free parking (space) and you don't because you've not got the 'right' cancer, particularly when I was financially destroyed," Ms Bamber said.

"There's huge amounts of support for breast cancer. I'd like to see all cancers get equal funding. Ovarian cancer and the other gynaecological cancers desperately need funding for early detection tests and research. That's critical. Ovarian cancer often gets detected too late. I am extraordinarily lucky to be here four years on."

Less than half of Australian women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are still alive five years later, compared with 90 per cent for breast cancer.

Ms Bamber, who has been back working full-time since July, said her mental struggle had been as difficult as the physical challenges of having cancer.

"I wouldn't be where I am if I hadn't had the right mental health support, the right family support and an amazing medical team," she said.

The Australia New Zealand Gynaecological Oncology Group has launched a new fundraising initiative dubbed WomenCan to fund research into gynaecological cancers, which originate in the female reproductive system and include ovarian, uterine, cervical, vulvar, vaginal and fallopian tube cancer.

Ms Bamber sought an appointment with her general practitioner after experiencing painful cramping for about a week.

Other symptoms of gynaecological cancer can include, abdominal bloating, feeling full quickly, frequent urination, back pain, constipation, menstrual irregularities, fatigue, indigestion, pain during sex and wart-like growths or itchy, burning and painful lumps.

"Lots of people think a Pap smear can find ovarian cancer but it doesn't," Ms Bamber said.

Every day in Australia, about 17 women are diagnosed with a gynaecological cancer.

For more information about WomenCan and to donate to gynaecological cancer research: womencan.org.au.