Ovarian cancer claims the lives of 4,400 UK women every year. One of its youngest survivors urges women to be more aware of the risks.
It was the phone call mum Julie Salmons had been dreading.
Her student daughter, on holiday in Spain with her best friend, was sobbing down the line. What had gone wrong? Julie ran through all the possibilities as her 20-year-old wept in pain, barely able to speak.
She’d warned them not to drink too much, to go out in taxis and always go home together. She’d even issued instructions about them using enough suntan cream and protecting themselves from heatstroke.
And though she’d waved them off with a cheery smile, scores of ‘what-ifs’ were still running through her mind.
But this was a situation she could never have foreseen. Just four days into her holiday at the family’s apartment in Mijas, Becki was critically ill in hospital, awaiting what turned out to be a life-saving operation for ovarian cancer.
Julie and husband Garry raced from their home in Stannington to board a plane and be by their daughter’s side.
“It came totally out of the blue. We waved off a perfectly happy girl and just days later, she was calling us saying she felt like she was dying and doctors were preparing to operate,” says Julie, a beauty salon receptionist.
Surgeons removed a tumour 13cm long which had been growing inside Becki for up to four years without a single symptom.
Ovarian cancer is one of the biggest killer cancers for women. Some 4,400 women die from it every year, but the vast majority of victims are over 50 and usually past the menopause.
For someone of 20 to have it is extremely rare. Though at that stage, the family had no idea the tumour that had caused Becki’s agony was actually cancerous.
The Spanish hospital misdiagnosed the tumour as benign.
It was a month later that specialists at Sheffield’s Jessops Hospital checked samples of the tumour - hand-delivered by Becki’s mum and dad after their own holiday in Spain - and had to relay the devastating news.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Becki. “When the Spanish doctors told us the tumour cells weren’t cancerous, we treated things so casually I carried on with my holiday and mum and dad flew home.
“I have one of the rarest, the female form of testicular cancer and is suffered by one per cent of ovarian cancer patients,” says Becki. “Yet all the time it was growing inside me.
“When the stomach pain started, my friend Leigh told me not to worry; she said she’d had something similar the day before and we must have eaten something dodgy.”
She is hugely relieved that her Spanish surgeons decided at the last minute not to operate via keyhole surgery. Says Becki: “I’ve since found out that if they had tried the keyhole method, the tumour could have crumbled, sending cancerous cells into my abdomen.”
“When I saw the tumour afterwards it was like a liver-coloured jacket potato. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t felt ill before, but they told me I’d only got the pain because the tumour had twisted around my internal organs.
“If that hadn’t happened, it would still be inside me.”
She needed immediate chemotherapy at Weston Park hospital’s teen cancer unit and though cells were detected in her lymph nodes, a scan in December showed she has responded well to treatment.
Now Becki’s mum, dad and elder sister Natalie feel they are on a knife-edge. Every three months they will nervously await the results of blood tests.
Says Julie: “We know that if the cancer is going to come back, it will be within the next two years. I’ve had to watch my daughter come to terms with so much. It all seems so unfair for someone so young. But she’s a little fighter and stronger than we ever thought.”