Una Crudden is 60 today. It’s a birthday she didn’t think she would see. Five years ago she was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. She had originally been misdiagnosed. That misdiagnosis meant that by the time her cancer was caught, there was nothing could be done. She was given 3-5 years to live. Five years on and she knows she’s on borrowed time. Most people could be forgiven for concentrating on the time they had left, and on all of the feelings of sadness, anger and frustration which inevitably come to any person who have been told they have a few years to live. Not Una. This West Belfast grandmother is a one woman powerhouse, determined to help every woman in Northern Ireland.
Una has been running a one woman campaign to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of Ovarian Cancer, also referred to as the “silent killer”, due to the fact that it is low profile. She is determined to change this through her fight for a solo awareness campaign to ensure that women will spot the symptoms of this disease. She has achieved cross community political support – particularly from the Stormont Health Committee- (a rarity to have them all in agreement) – on this issue. However, the Health Minister, Edwin Poots, has said no. Una is frustrated by this; “What is the point of having a Health Committee unanimously in support of this – a campaign which will save lives, if the Minister doesn’t listen to the majority? Edwin Poots is a nice man, and he has been supportive, but he really needs to do the right thing on this issue.”
She has a new tumour in her right lung, and is going for review at the end of the month. She has already been through four rounds of chemotherapy. She has had her lung drained of fluid, a procedure she found “horrendous”, and lost her hair. But her humour shines through. “I’ve saved myself a fortune in hairdressing with my two inches of hair”, she replies impishly, when I ask her how she is doing.
When I ask about her fight to raise awareness, though, Una’s passion and determination takes over.
“It’s too late for me. I’m terminally ill. I’ve spent the last two years of my limited life fighting for this, time which could be spent with my family. I’m doing that so that women do not have to needlessly die. This is a cancer which can be treated, if the signs are caught in time. The problem is that lack of awareness means that by the time it is caught, women are already in the terminal stages. A solo campaign will undoubtedly save lives. And for every day the Health Minister says no to this, another woman will be put at risk.”
“I won’t see my newest grandchild who is due soon, grow up. I probably won’t see my eighteen year old son graduate. I didn’t drink, and didn’t smoke. I walked six miles a day. If I can get Ovarian Cancer, it can happen to any woman out there. This campaign belongs to all of the women in Northern Ireland. What better present could you give any woman for mother’s day, than to sign the petition?
The petition she refers to is needed to put pressure on the politicians who Una believes can introduce the solo awareness campaign relatively easily. It is estimated that it only costs 300,000 pounds to do so. Considering a few rounds of chemo per person can cost £100,000, it’s the equivalent of three patients receiving treatment. The money spent on a solo campaign would pay for itself in prevention. It would also save lives. So why is Edwin Poots refusing to give the green light?
In short, he has stated that if one solo campaign was granted, others would follow. Una believes that awareness of any cancer is welcome; however, there is nothing to stop the Health Minister in running additional solo awareness campaigns of other cancers such as pancreatic – which also need awareness of symptoms. “Wasted time is wasted lives”, says Una poignantly. “How many mother’s day chairs will be empty this year because women who have died from ovarian cancer could have been saved?”
The figures speak for themselves. Only 5% of money finds its way to Ovarian Research. In 20 years, no new drugs have been made available for treatment. Of the 178 women diagnosed with the condition annually across Northern Ireland – 119 die. 37% of women in Northern Ireland are not at all confident about identifying the symptoms.
Una has had one success that she is proud of. Recently, a pathway for GPs in the North was introduced to ensure that if women present with symptoms, doctors must follow investigation guidelines accordingly. This will undoubtedly save lives. A simple blood test, CA125 which costs £16, can also help. Una urges women, through her twitter account regularly to ask for this test if they feel something is amiss. “There were five of us diagnosed together – aged 36 to 66 – and I am the last one left. The other four have died,” she said. “Every one of us was misdiagnosed with either Irritable Bowel Syndrome or diverticulitis.
Una is hugely thankful for the support which she has received from a charity based in England, “Target Ovarian Cancer”, which has developed leaflets which Una distributes throughout Northern Ireland, in shopping centres, and schools, where she also gives awareness and life coaching talks voluntarily to sixth formers. But she believes much more can be done. “If other charities in the North were more robust in raising awareness of Ovarian Cancer, people like me wouldn’t be terminal. I hadn’t seen one leaflet about this cancer before I was diagnosed, and I’ve yet to see one now that I am. Awareness can help to prevent deaths. I believe that other charities can step up to the mark. If this is what I can achieve, on my own, just think how many more lives could be saved if a solo campaign was introduced?”
Despite knowing that Ovarian Cancer will claim her life, Una remains upbeat. Although she has cried regularly with the frustrations of trying to ensure that this solo campaign is brought in before she dies, she believes that terminal cancer has allowed her to look at the world differently also. “Cancer can kill my body, but not my spirit”, she says matter of factly. “I see the best in people now. Every day, no matter what the weather, is a wonderful day. I don’t take things for granted. I just want every woman out there to help to save their own lives, as you never know what is around the corner. You can do that by backing this campaign, and by signing and sharing the petition. Tell Minister Poots, that he needs to introduce it, and do it now. This may be a silent killer, but I’m not going to be silent about it. Lives are at stake”
Ovarian Cancer: Key Symptoms
· Persistent pelvic or abdominal pain
Lower Back Pain
· Increased abdominal size/persistent bloating
· Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
· Urinary symptoms (needing to go to the bathroom more urgently/often than usual)
Occasionally there can be other symptoms including changes in bowel habits, extreme fatigue, and unexplained weight loss.
If you have 2 or more of these signs and they are persistent, go to your GP as soon as possible and get checked.