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Ovarian Cancer

Impact on others

In addition to dealing with their own feelings about their illness, people with cancer must also cope with the reactions and emotions of those around them. In the past, cancer was taboo, but although nowadays it is talked about much more, it can still be hard to do. 

When women told family, friends or colleagues about their ovarian cancer some wanted to know all the facts while others reacted with shock, anger or fear. Many people don't know that different cancers have very different survival rates, or that treatments are improving all the time - some friends and family found it difficult to face them because they didn't know what to say. One woman's friends in the African and Caribbean community advised her to pray rather than go to the hospital for treatment.

 

Said that people don't know how to face you or what to say because they assume cancer means death.

Said that people don't know how to face you or what to say because they assume cancer means death.

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 41
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Lots of people were watching me like a hawk, and a lot of people, as soon as I said I'd got cancer, they automatically put me into a box really, you could almost see them put me away in a box, because for a lot of people they think that if you've got cancer they equate it with death. And I certainly know that to a certain extent I felt that the same. And I know that when I was training as a nurse, very few people made it when they had cancer.

But people would walk to the other side of the road rather than speak to me, and all the things you hear about death are true if you've got cancer as well, because I think cancer has got a weight that no other disease has got - just the words terrify people. And people think they're going to catch it from you as well, and some people will just avoid you, and you certainly learn who's going to be your friends because they, they stick by you whatever the situation.  

 

Friends in the African Caribbean community advised her to pray rather than go to the hospital for...

Friends in the African Caribbean community advised her to pray rather than go to the hospital for...

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 46
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But before I did that I told those people I went with to church, and they said to me 'you can't go there [the hospital] again, you have to stay in the church and pray'. But when I was praying my God said 'I know, I've heard your prayers'. So I said to the Lord 'if you have heard my prayers I'm going to go there. And because doctors they're your doctors, they're sons and daughters, and I know you are the one who gives them wisdom, let it be done, let it be done the way, let it be done your own way Lord'. 

But from there I lost many people, the friends I knew they never came to see me, because the minute they were told that I had that and I had this, they thought that was the end of me. And I asked my God to spare my life for my son's sake, because I've lost my husband and it was hard bringing him up alone and him having no friends or family near him. 

Some people react to the news of a serious illness in a way that does not help the patient. One woman resented being repeatedly told she was lucky her cancer was caught early when she didn't feel lucky to have cancer. Another was frustrated by people saying “you'll be all right” because it didn't acknowledge her fears. People often reacted in surprising ways' some friends who had been close could not deal with the illness while others who had been more distant became unexpectedly supportive. Women said it sometimes seemed more difficult for other people to deal with than it was for those with the illness. Some women tried to avoid talking about their cancer because they really wanted to be treated as normal.

Many women talked about the reactions of their husband or partner. One woman said hers 'went to pieces' probably because his first wife had died of cancer and he was afraid of losing her the same way. Another said her husband could remember nothing of the two weeks following her diagnosis. The husband of a childless woman felt bitter because they had not been advised before her hysterectomy about saving eggs (see 'Fertility').

 

Said her husband felt bitter because they had not been advised about saving eggs before her...

Said her husband felt bitter because they had not been advised about saving eggs before her...

Age at interview: 33
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 30
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My husband was very bitter for a long time, very bitter about the fact that we'd had no pre-warning, about the fact we weren't given any counselling pre-hysterectomy, about the fact that there were no eggs kept.  

That was all positive for me and I really didn't see the point in worrying about eggs not being saved, anything like that, because at the end of the day, if I was being given the best chance of survival, then that was going to be the most important thing really, you know, and we had to move on. We couldn't go back, they'd all gone, you couldn't do anything about it.  

But my husband found it really hard to accept that part, that's a whole other thing, it wasn't just ovarian cancer we had to deal with, it was childlessness.

Partners could feel helpless and frustrated. Some found it difficult to show their feelings or to talk about the illness while others could cry openly or admit their fears. Many couples who talked a lot about it found their relationship became closer. Some partners had difficulty sleeping, lost weight or became depressed, and one woman's husband had a series of strokes and could not look after her. Partners could have a tough time if they were looking after the woman, the housework and children on top of coping with their own emotions and holding down a job, with little or no support. One husband had joked that he had married a nurse so he would be cared for in his old age but now had become the carer instead. A woman whose husband was convinced that she was going to be all right didn't seem to understand why she was scared.

 

Her husband found it difficult to show his feelings or talk about his fears.

Her husband found it difficult to show his feelings or talk about his fears.

Age at interview: 55
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 50
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How did your husband react to your diagnosis?

He was strange. He's not a feely-feely. He's' and he has a difficulty expressing his emotions anyway. I can remember waking up in the hospital after the op, and he was there. And his face was there but he was as white as a sheet. And he didn't really say anything. And he didn't get stressed. He'd say, you know, when I came home, like the reality of what was going on, and he'd say, 'You're gonna be alright, you're gonna be alright', as if it was like, you know, 'Of course you're gonna be alright'. And I thought, and he' he found it very hard to say like, 'I'm scared'. I can remember waking - middle of the nights are the worst - dark nights, in the day, I don't know, but there's something about waking up at one o'clock in the morning and then three o'clock in the morning and then five o'clock in the morning. I can remember crying, I can remember him waking up and holding me while I cried. He probably sneakily cried without showing me that he was crying or... It was almost like he didn't want to talk about it, he didn't want to say how frightened he was. 

 

Her husband used crying as a release and coped with running the home and working while she was in...

Her husband used crying as a release and coped with running the home and working while she was in...

Age at interview: 59
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 49
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So tell me about how your husband coped, was he a good support to you?

He was great, absolutely great, after he'd finished crying, he was absolutely fine! Apparently he used to cry all the way to work and all the way home, that's how he got rid of his' not stress, is it stress? I've got no idea. I think because it all happened quickly from my being diagnosed to going into hospital, to being operated on, to coming out, I mean he had four children to feed, because I mean they're four useless children, or they were at the time!

I think between the visiting and the shopping and doing work etcetera, life just went on really. Because I hadn't been ill I didn't have any build-up to this. I think everybody was probably, when I think about it, perhaps all in a state of shock, life just went on, she'd just gone into hospital, she was going to come out, so we'll cope for ten days, and they did cope for ten days.

 

Her husband had a series of small strokes and depression and could not look after her.

Her husband had a series of small strokes and depression and could not look after her.

Age at interview: 62
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 61
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It was around this time that I became conscious that my husband was acting abnormally. He was very angry about the illness and we didn't know at the time but he was having a serious of small strokes, and his behaviour and personality changed. And because he was angry that I was ill and couldn't do things anymore, he became extraordinarily aggressive towards me, which made life very difficult. He didn't, I don't think he could help what was happening, but at a time when I needed, the first time in my life I needed somebody to look after me, there was nobody there and I was having to put up with a lot of aggression and anger and shouting.

When I came back from hospital that third time as an inpatient, he actually did have a stroke which was noticeable. He fell over and couldn't speak and couldn't remember anything, he couldn't walk. And it was only then, and later when he had had a brain scan, that we realised his behaviour change had been due to a series of small strokes, but it did make my life extremely difficult for some months. He became very depressed; it took him a long time to get over it. 

 

Thinks family carers have a hard time because they have to take on new roles and have little...

Thinks family carers have a hard time because they have to take on new roles and have little...

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 41
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My husband's been a big support all the time. I think he finds it hard at times. When he goes out, not long ago he went out, and before he went out he said 'How are you?' and I said I was fine. And I said 'Why do you want to know?' And he said, 'Well whenever I go anywhere they always ask me how you are, but they never ask me how I am.' And I think it is hard on people who are looking after and supporting those who are ill, because they have almost a harder task than the people who are actually ill. And there's a tremendous amount of support for people who are ill but the people who are left picking up the pieces and the dealing with the housework and the children and the going to work and not sure how people are going to be from one day to the next, I think they have a very difficult task.

I think he's handled it really well, yes, I think he's been a great support and I think he's found it quite hard. He had no idea of the implications, I think it was quite, in a way I had some idea of what would be involved in everything. I knew that it was going to be surgery. I knew that cancer probably means chemotherapy, but I didn't realise at the time he had no idea that it was going to be any more than just an operation. And he found it quite difficult with the oncologist and finding that I needed all this treatment, and coping with the job and coping with the children as well. But I couldn't have managed without him.

Children react differently depending on their age, personality and relationship with their mother. Some were emotional while others hid their feelings. Some became depressed or took to alcohol or drugs. Some wanted to know all the medical details while others just wanted reassurance that their mother would be all right. Some dealt with it light-heartedly while others talked with their mothers about life and death. Children who had already lost a parent to cancer were particularly devastated. A couple of women said their child had expected the diagnosis to be cancer. One woman said her daughter had expressed concern that she might have caused her illness by giving her a stressful time (see 'Ideas about causes'). Another wondered if her daughter had decided to marry her long-term partner sooner to ensure her mother was alive for the wedding.

 

Her three children reacted to the diagnosis in very different ways.

Her three children reacted to the diagnosis in very different ways.

Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 56
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How did your sons take it?

The, my eldest son, is, he's a very, he's a policeman, he's a very sort of pedantic sort of chap, and, he took it very well. I mean he did a lot of talking to me and asking me, you know, was I alright and what did I need to, what did I want to do with the rest of my life, and, you know, was I going to be alright, that kind of thing, in the, in the beginning. And now he just, you know, he just keeps in touch and rings up and makes sure I'm alright each month and whatever.  

But my daughter, she's the youngest of the 3, my second son, he's, he just sort of treats me just exactly the same, which is quite nice really because it's a bit peculiar sometimes always being treated differently, and I have had to say to people, you know, 'look I'm not dying yet, you know, I might be one day, but, you know, I want just to be normal, I don't want to be treated any different'. So he treats me very different.  

My daughter I think is quite badly affected, I think, she's very conscious of, I suppose herself and of being a woman that, I don't know, maybe that's what it is. She seems to be, well she worries more then, put it like that, I mean she seems to worry more about me and I know, I know it does bother her, I can tell from how she is that it bothers her and, you know, and that she doesn't cope with it as well. But then her life is not wonderful. So, you know, maybe some of that is because she's not as settled as she might be, so, but they, I mean they, you know, they're all, you know, there and very supportive and so I think I'm very lucky really.  

Younger children sometimes became very demanding or had difficulty coping with their schoolwork. Women felt guilty because their children had not received enough attention from them during their illness, and one felt that her daughter's school hadn't given her daughter enough support because she had not told them how ill she was. Friends could be a good source of support for children; one woman's adult children could not seek support outside the family because they had decided to keep the illness secret.

Some children were too young to fully understand what was going on but were unsettled by what was happening to their mother. A nine-year-old wrote a poem. One woman said that her granddaughter had become more distant; another that her granddaughter didn't want her to collect her from school while she was bald (see 'Unwanted effects of chemotherapy').

 

Her nine-year-old daughter wrote her a poem on learning the diagnosis.

Her nine-year-old daughter wrote her a poem on learning the diagnosis.

Age at interview: 43
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 41
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After the third session of chemotherapy I went home to my own family. My daughter wasn't aware at this point but she, prior to having my hair cut off I was washing my hair and my daughter was there with me and my hair was floating in the sink, and she asked what was wrong. So I had to tell her. She was only 9. Her way to deal with it was she wrote me a poem, which was a quite touching poem. But she came, she came round to thinking, she didn't, she didn't look on it as death, she knew what chemotherapy was because of some of the programmes she'd watched, but I basically said I had cancer. So she didn't really relate too much with the cancer but knew that I was ill.  

She was a very intelligent 9 year old, and she ran outside and took off up the lane, didn't want to know me, didn't want to speak to anybody, and then about an hour later she came back and she handed me this poem she'd written. Which was very, very touching, but it just explained exactly how she felt. Since then I haven't hidden anything from her. But it yeah, the hardest point was telling my 9 year old daughter. You know, but we never ever, no she did, I think she maybe did ask me was I going to die, and I think I had said, 'Well, hopefully not, I intend to fight it', you know or 'I intend to be here'.  

Parents, brothers and sisters also reacted in different ways. Women often found it easier to talk to female relatives. Some women's mothers had already had cancer and could talk about it more openly, but parents were often distraught at the thought that their daughter might die before they did. Some were elderly and frail and would no longer be able to depend upon their daughter for help. One woman described how her parents and brothers cried with her when they visited her in hospital.

 

Her husband, parents and brothers cried with her on learning the diagnosis.

Her husband, parents and brothers cried with her on learning the diagnosis.

Age at interview: 43
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 41
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First person I wanted in was my parents, which I telephoned. They both came in but I knew my husband would have to meet them in reception because my father wouldn't cope with it. So they came in and we all had a cry as a family and I was determined that I would have to face what was coming and I was going to get through it.  

I have 2 brothers, and the first time they came in we were all sitting crying and I'd never seen my brothers cry before and that was very hard. But once you get through all that stages, I think you get stronger for it and you know how to talk about it. It's that initial, 'lets talk about it', don't know what to say, they don't know how to approach you, they don't, they don't want to cry in front of you because they're embarrassed, but I think if you give them that lead, 'lets cry', and then it really does open them up and we can do that before you start to talk about it. Well that's how I felt it helped me, but '


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Many families worried that other female relatives might be at increased risk of developing cancer through inheriting a faulty gene (see 'Family history and genetics').

Last reviewed June 2016.

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