‘A letter saved my life’

Sheila Davis'' ''Picture: Malcolm Wells (1469-6124)
Sheila Davis'' ''Picture: Malcolm Wells (1469-6124)
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A letter on the table saved Sheila Davis’ life.

Like so many seemingly unimportant letters through the post, she almost threw it away.

But, a decade later and after surviving a life-threatening cancer, Sheila is glad she went with her gut instinct and kept the letter, knowing that she has been able to see her grandchildren grow up.

In 2001, the letter was sent out to many over-60s, inviting them to take part in a trial screening for ovarian cancer, sometimes called ‘the silent killer’ as it can grow inside you and only show vague symptoms such as bloating and a feeling of fullness.

Then in her early 60s, Sheila was going about her everyday life, working as a cook at Wyeth Laboratory in Havant, but something made her phone the hospital after seeing the letter.

‘I just came from work one evening and saw the letter on the table,’ says Sheila, who is now 73 and lives in Windrush Gardens, Waterlooville.

‘I just thought “I’m not going to bother”.

‘I chatted to a girl at work who said she had one too, so I changed my mind.

‘I got another letter asking if I would like to go for a scan at St Mary’s Hospital which I did.

‘They took my blood and everything was fine.

‘I went four or five times. It must have been about two years and the last time I went in, they asked if they could call the doctor in.’

Sheila was taking part in trials for the United Kingdom Collaborative Trial of Ovarian Cancer Screening.

Something abnormal had been found and Sheila was recommended for a hysterectomy, which she had in 2003.

‘It wasn’t until the day after the operation when the doctors came round that they said “Did you know you had cancer?”,’ says Sheila, a mum-of-two and grandmother-of two.

‘I had no idea. They didn’t know until they opened me up.

‘I was just shocked. It’s a horrible feeling and you still get that feeling of “will it come back?”.’

Sheila was expecting months of chemotherapy or radiotherapy, but doctors were quietly confident that they had removed all the cancerous cells.

What followed was 10 years of regular hospital appointments for Sheila.

The word ‘cancer’ was still never far from her mind.

The word still sends shivers down her spine as we sitting chatting with a cup of tea at her daughter’s house in Waterlooville.

‘I hate the word,’ she says.

‘It’s something you never think is going to happen to you.

‘I kept going to work because it takes things off your mind. The first three or four years were awful.’

Sheila had never taken life for granted after losing her mum when she was seven years old to a brain haemorrhage and her father dying from prostate cancer at the age of 69.

But the health scare made her grab life even more.

And last year was a milestone for Sheila as she got the 10-year all-clear from ovarian cancer.

Research shows that as few as a fifth of women diagnosed with later stage ovarian cancer are alive five years later.

Sheila was given a big hug by her doctor, Robert Woolas, a consultant gynaecological oncologist at Queen Alexandra Hospital.

‘He said “congratulations, it’s 10 years now and I’m so pleased for you”,’ says Sheila, who stays busy by working as a cleaner at HMS Nelson in Portsmouth.

‘It was a lovely feeling. I was very lucky.

‘The doctor said I would not be here to this day but for this trial.

‘I used to get little twinges, but you think nothing of it.

‘I thought it was just wind and didn’t take any notice.’

Dr Woolas says Sheila is an ‘inspiration’ who was one of a number of positive stories to emerge from the trial.

The results of the ovarian cancer trials – which ended in 2011 and recruited more than 200,000 women nationally – are currently being analysed.

Dr Woolas adds: ‘Hopefully this information will show that scanning strategies should be rolled out nationwide in conjuction with mammography that takes place for breast cancer.’

Sheila is urging women to go to the doctors if they feel unsure.

She says: ‘People should go if they have any little twinge. Don’t be embarrassed because that was my problem. You have got to put your trust in the doctors.

‘Don’t suffer – just get it seen.’

CANCER of the ovary affects more than 6,500 women in the UK every year.

It is the fifth most common cancer among women after breast, bowel, lung and cancer of the womb.

It is most common in women who have had the menopause.

It can be difficult to recognise, but early symptoms to look out for are persistent bloating, pain in the pelvis and lower stomach, and difficulty eating.

Ninety per cent of women diagnosed with early stage one ovarian cancer will be alive in five years’ time.

Screening is only available for women who are at high risk of developing the disease due to a strong family history or inheritance of a particular faulty gene. Clinical trials in the UK are assessing the effectiveness of screening in high-risk women and in the general population.

If you are at high risk, your GP can refer you to your local genetics service or family cancer clinic.

The screening tests for ovarian cancer are the same as those routinely used to diagnose it, including a blood test for higher-than-normal levels of CA125 (a chemical produced by cancer cells) and an ultrasound scan.

The tests are used together to produce results that are as accurate as possible. However, as screening methods are still being tested, they cannot guarantee they will identify every case of cancer.

Click here for NHS advice on ovarian cancer

BIG-hearted hairdressers at a salon in Emsworth went the extra mile to help an ovarian cancer charity.

Debbie Hulbert, 51, who runs Charter Cutting Company in High Street, wanted to do something after her mum Peggy Sparks was diagnosed with ovarian cancer 18 months ago.

Almost £3,000 has been raised for the charity Ovacome since then.

Hairdressers swapped their scissors for spoons as they whipped up home-made sweets and sold them at the shop and also held a raffle.

Salon manager Jo Nichol, 46, took part in the Hayling-to-Holland cycle ride last year with her husband Tim and son James, raising £1,900 through sponsorship.

Peggy is receiving home treatment from The Rowans and people have been bowled over by her bravery.

Debbie receives an NHS blood test to check for ovarian cancer, but has to have a regular scan at a private hospital.

She said: ‘People need to be more aware and charities need money to raise awareness.’