Burnetta Van Stipriaan of Auckland, New Zealand, was diagnosed with stage 1C2 clear cell ovarian cancer in 2019 at the age of 43.
Burnetta had a history of endometriosis and surgeries in 2010 and 2011 for polyps, fibroids and ovarian cysts.
In 2018 she saw her doctors twice. The first time she said she was experiencing irregular periods, lower abdominal pain, and had a tingling sensation. The second time she described lower abdominal pain and a frequent need to urinate, including at nighttime, which was new for her. Her request for a scan was denied.
In 2019 she was admitted to hospital via ambulance for acute pain, where she had an ultrasound, CT scan and MRI — a 13-centimetre cyst on her left ovary had ruptured.
“I am told there was no sign of that cyst when I had an appendectomy at the end of 2017,” she said.
Despite Burnetta’s cancer being found relatively early, she still required major surgeries. “I was cut open from more or less below my breast bone down to my pubic bone, twice.” This was followed by four rounds of chemotherapy. “I chose to stop the carboplatin and paclitaxel at that point,” she said.
“My hair was long before chemo, so I let my daughter who was 6 at the time cut it into a bob. That gave us all a few laughs. But when I did eventually go bald, she found it hard because I no longer ‘looked like mummy.’
“Like other types of cancer, ovarian cancer doesn’t just affect the person going through it, but the people around them,” she said.
“My dad had mesothelioma from asbestos exposure, so my diagnosis also brought up some memories of that time,” she said. “Looking back, I wasn’t my own best advocate and was also ashamed, for want of a better word, at ‘what happened’ and, perhaps, of my ovarian cancer diagnosis.”
She urges other people to speak up to health providers about whatever symptoms they experience. “Even when they’re to do with ‘down there.’ Keeping a symptom diary and taking it with you is a good idea.”
Three years on, Burnetta is positive about her outlook. “I went from struggling to check the mail post-surgery to completing a 5-kilometre run in 2020 and a 10-kilometre run in 2021. This year I’ve tried surf-boarding. I now paint. I have a much more holistic approach to health and well-being now thanks, largely, to having had cancer,” she said.
“I can advocate better for myself now. I am owning my story — this is part of my story in which I get to write the ending.”