Action Hero Survivors  :  Merran Williams, Nurse & Artist
Merran Williams Photo

Merran Williams with her Westies, Gemma & Edie

Nearly three years ago I was working as a clinical nurse consultant in a large hospital in Queensland, Australia. It was the best job I’d ever had, and I loved it. In 2005, I’d had a hysterectomy for heavy bleeding, but asked the gynaecologist to leave my ovaries.  A big mistake! I was over 50, then, and starting menopause.

In November 2008 I had a routine check up with my gynaecologist, who did a trans-vaginal ultrasound scan and told me he could “see something” on my right ovary.  He sent me for a CT scan and a CA125 blood test and called me at work to come and see him.  A week later I was being operated on by a very skilled gynaecologic-oncologist.  It never occurred to me that it could be cancer because we don’t have any breast or ovarian cancer in our family.

Being told you have ovarian cancer is a big shock.  I’d nursed many women with this disease in the 1990’s, and I knew what I had is life-threatening.  I had three weeks to get over the major surgery before starting chemo.  My cancer was Stage 3B (serous epithelial), the most common kind.  But the cancer was in both ovaries and I had a small spot outside the pelvis that made me a Stage 3.  Luckily I had none in my liver, bowel or omentum (the “apron” that covers our gut).  This period passed in a blur:  agonised children, bewildered husband.  I had chemotherapy every three weeks for six cycles but my worst experience was losing my hair.

Being diagnosed with ovarian cancer changed my life direction.  I stopped working for 13 months, and concentrated on building up my strength and health.  I had several sessions with a wonderful psychologist who taught me simple meditation techniques and to process what had happened.  I took full advantage of touch therapies, massage and reflexology.  I spent weeks staying near the sea, beachcombing.  The wonder of the sea and shells opened up to me.  I would walk along the sand, choosing the most beautiful shells, and take them back to the beach house and wash them.  Then I’d paint a seascape and lovingly decorate the painting with shells.  I put shells on crosses and on mirrors.  The slow, calm, concentrated activity put my mind in a state of deep peace, and I sailed through the first season of survival.  My children, my friends and my husband also bolstered me.

In my second season of survival, I moved house, up near the beach.  I built a garden and started back at work part-time.  Life was normalising.  I joined art groups, painting landscapes, seascapes and flowers.  I did weekly meditation.  I started to feel much more energetic and wondered how I could try and help women like me.  I was invited to be a “consumer,” giving feedback on national guidelines being developed to improve the quality of care for women with gynaecological cancer.  From this connection I heard about a research project looking at the supportive care needs for women treated for gynaecological cancer.  I was appointed the project coordinator and finished this research in July 2011.

My third season of survival has involved stable CA125’s!  Also, I was awarded a Winston Churchill Memorial Fellowship in 2010 and in April and May 2011 visited Denver (University of Colorado Hospital), New York (Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center) and Houston (MD Anderson Cancer Center).  I was looking at programs for cancer survivors in the U.S.  My best take-home message was the “Passport to Health” that is given to survivors once they complete acute treatment.  This document is given to both the patient and the primary care physician (GP) and includes a summary of all of the patient’s treatments, treatment side-effects, referrals (to a psychologist, sex therapist, dietician, etc.), recommended follow-up tests (such as mammograms, bone density scans, etc.) and recommendations to reduce risk  such as diet and exercise.  It is a clear “road map” for survivors to follow in between visits to their oncologist or surgeon.

I am still painting, but I am also working on providing support to women going through our journey, and ultimately to help raise funds for research.  It is only through research that we will improve the lives and care of women with ovarian cancer.

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