Sunday, July 3, 2022

They Said It Was IBS. It Was Actually Stage Four Cancer

Erin Bassett knew she wasn’t well for a long time, but her symptoms were dismissed – and then it was too late. She tells Rachael Russell her story of her eventual diagnosis and why she wants other women to trust their guts when it comes to their health.

There were so many signs that Erin Bassett was not well.

There was the bloat: “I’d try fad diets, lose 8-9kg, but not on my stomach. Side-on, I looked pregnant.”

There was the pain: “If anyone came near I would flinch. It would hurt if they just brushed past or knocked my stomach.”

And there was sex: “It had become so uncomfortable and painful but because we were trying to conceive at the time just tried to ignore the pain”

Yet it took over a year for Erin to be diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. Having now endured major surgery and six rounds of chemo, the 35-year-old is still coming to grips with her illness. “I can’t help wondering if I’d be telling a different story if my symptoms hadn’t been dismissed as not worthy of a blood test.” 

Erin first saw a doctor in early 2019 when she became “freaked out” that it could be an ovarian cyst – her symptoms seemed similar – and visiting a weekend A&E. 

“Unfortunately, I made the mistake of telling that doctor I was on the keto diet,” she recalls. “He told me to buy some All Bran and tell my partner he could have a new nickname for me – his little poop pusher – because I was constipated. I left feeling stupid, like I was overreacting.”

“My first question was, ‘What’s the life expectancy?’ The answer was five years, based on the stats.”

In late 2019 Erin felt a lump under her arm and after it being there for over a week saw her GP. An aunt of Erin’s went to her own GP because of a lump (swollen lymph node under her arm), and after getting a brush off found out she had melanoma, resulting in her passing. 

Knowing this prompted Erin to go back to a doctor. “But because of my age and weight (85kg) I was not taken seriously – no blood test, no urine test. Then the lump went so again I thought, ‘I’m just being stupid.” 

Erin and her then-fiancé, Chris, as mentioned were also trying unsuccessfully to have a baby. In an appointment with a different doctor about her fertility, she mentioned her pain and swelling. This time, she was advised to look up a website on Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) for advice on how to change her diet.

As the country went into lockdown in March, Erin was still experiencing regular constipation, swelling and discomfort. Like many Kiwis, Erin used the time to cut out alcohol and went for walks and bike rides with Chris and her step-children Tyler, 11 and Violet, 8. But her symptoms got worse.

“One  in May I couldn’t even get from the couch back to the bedroom. I was in tears. That’s when Chris said, ‘We’re phoning my GP this time.’”

That phone call alarmed Chris’ GP enough to call Erin in for a physical examination, and she was referred to a gynaecologist.  “At that point I was worried it was endometriosis – that was actually my worst fear. I hadn’t considered cancer.”

About 18 months after she first went to a doctor seeking answers Erin was told she had stage four ovarian cancer.  “My first question was, ‘What’s the life expectancy?’ The answer was five years, based on the stats.” She needed surgery to remove her ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, peritoneum, omentum and appendix, and to scrape her large bowel, followed by chemo, and a lifetime of hormone therapy. 

“My dream of having a child one day had gone out the window. I started to feel angry about the time that had been wasted. Who knows – if I’d been diagnosed straight away, I could have maybe salvaged some eggs.”

Despite her devastation, Erin and Chris have done their best to stay positive, including marrying in a “dream” June wedding at the family bach at Mangawhai, organised in a whirlwind 10 days.

Erin and Chris on their wedding day in 2020 with Tyler and Violet

“It was Chris’ idea to get married so quickly. I wasn’t too keen at first, I thought he was worried we wouldn’t have a chance later. I said we would have a chance later. But he said, ‘I want to be able to fight this together as husband and wife’.

Erin had lost her job due to Covid 19 – “my last day of work was the day before my diagnosis” – so money was tighter than usual. Family pitched in to help pull the wedding together, including finding a dress because the jumpsuit she’d planned to wear would not fit over her swollen stomach.  “The day before the wedding I found the perfect dress in a bridal store in Henderson – it was the first one I tried on.”

As a bonus, she was able to get some relief from her swelling for the big day when nurses “with some extra time on their hands” offered to drain five litres of fluid from her stomach. “It meant the dress was comfortable and I was able to eat.”

Chris, known to all his friends and family as Bozz, has stepped up for her in another big way as well. He took on the Cancer Society’s Longest Day golf challenge and played four rounds of golf – that’s 72 holes – in one day, raising more than $24,000. He played the four rounds at Mangawhai Golf Course, the same place he proposed to Erin, who is also a keen golfer. The couple played the final hole together, cheered on by family and friends. 

Although Erin’s tumours have gone, she’s not out of the woods yet and will need frequent monitoring. She’s grateful for the love and support of her husband and her step-children, but is still coming to terms with not being able to carry a baby of her own. 

“It’s the hardest part of the whole ordeal for me. I wish I’d known that my symptoms could be related to cancer. So, I want to say to other women, trust your gut. If it doesn’t feel right then push back.”

To find out more about the Longest Day challenge click here

Ovarian cancer:

The early symptoms of ovarian cancer are vague, or there may be none. Symptoms can include:

Discomfort in the abdomen or a bloated feeling or pressure

Change in bowel habits, flatulence, indigestion

Kidney or bladder problems

Abnormal vaginal bleeding

Pain

Losing weight in spite of having a bigger abdomen

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