‘Ovarian cancer was brutal, but it made me’

Maree Taifalos was diagnosed with ovarian cancer just after her 21st birthday. Eight years later, she’s not only healthy – she’s grateful for what her cancer taught her.

“You’ve got cancer” isn’t something I expected to be told as a 21-year-old. I was young and hadn’t had much exposure to anything to do with cancer, so when I heard those words I didn’t know what I was in for. As they say, ignorance is bliss.

Looking back, I’d felt ‘off’ and tired for about six months before my diagnosis, but I thought it was nothing a multivitamin couldn’t fix and I didn’t have any obvious symptoms.

It wasn’t until I began experiencing abdominal discomfort, which turned into a world of pain within 24 hours, that I decided to go to hospital.

I initially thought I had some sort of abdominal infection, and the doctors suspected it was a urinary tract infection, so I wasn’t too worried. But then an ultrasound showed I had a large tumour on one of my ovaries.

Still, after I’d had it and the ovary removed, I thought, ‘great, that’s done, I can move on’.

A week later, when the biopsy showed I had dysgerminoma, a germ cell ovarian cancer, I realised I wasn’t anywhere near ‘done’.

I embarked on nine weeks of chemo and it was brutal

I felt completely battered, was in constant pain, and lost all my hair in the first week. On top of seeing how worried my family was, one of the hardest things was looking in the mirror.

I looked so sick and didn’t recognise that person as being me.

I also felt incredibly isolated. I had a lot of support, but I’d had the rug pulled out from under me.

It felt like I was battling a life-threatening illness while everyone else my age was doing normal things.

I was lucky because my prognosis was good right from the start, but even though I had a lot of hope, a part of me always doubted whether to believe I was going to be OK.

Thankfully, three months after finishing chemo I was given the good news that my treatment had worked.

Eight years later I’m cancer free and looking forward to getting married this year.

What I learnt from battling cancer

Now I know my cancer made me. It made me kinder, more compassionate and more appreciative of life.

Even small, everyday things just felt ‘better’ and like they were something to be grateful for. I’m also grateful for that chemo – without it, I wouldn’t be well again – and for my doctors who were mindful of the fact that at 21, I was yet to have children. I’m thankful that’s an option that’s still open to me.

As time passes, it’s a challenge not to start taking things for granted again, but I’m determined to maintain my post-cancer perspective because I know I’ve literally been given a new lease on life.”

February is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.

As told to Karen Fitall.