Trusting her instincts and following her gut saved Tash Crosby’s life – and now the gynaecological cancer survivor is on a mission to help as many New Zealanders suffering through illnesses that don’t get spoken about nearly enough.
Tash Crosby knew that something was wrong with her.
Call it a gut feeling, call it female intuition, the Auckland woman visited hospital emergency rooms three times – refusing to leave on the last occasion until someone helped her – until she was finally diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
“My doctor even tried to admit me, but that was declined,” Tash tells Capsule. “But on the third time after getting discharged with Panadol, I just begged for more tests and basically refused to go. And that’s how my cancer diagnosis came about.”
Incredibly Tash (41), who has now founded the charity Talk Peach following her successful battle against cancer, was one of the lucky ones. She was among the 15% of women whose ovarian cancer is picked up at stage one. For the other 85%, it’s a different story.
Gynaecological cancers are some of the deadliest. Out of the 1000 Kiwis who are diagnosed with one of the five – ovarian, uterine, vaginal, cervical and vulval – a third of them will be ovarian, which has an average five-year survival rate of just under 40 per cent. And 400 of those New Zealanders die a year.
And out of the five, four currently don’t have screening options – yes, the smear test you diligently only looks for cervical cancer.
So Tash, through Talk Peach, is determined to raise awareness of signs, symptoms and options for women, so they don’t have to endure an experience like hers.
Having been diagnosed with endometriosis three years prior, Tash first put her symptoms down to it growing back, so she went to the doctor straight away. After a transvaginal ultrasound, doctors found a cyst.
“I was actually relieved – I felt good that I had it assessed and kind of vindicated, because I knew there was something wrong,” she says.
Eager for the cyst to be removed, and getting more uncomfortable, Tash’s GP thought something else might be up and called the hospital to ask for her to be admitted but was declined.
However, she took herself in three times over the next few weeks with worsening symptoms, until Tash had finally had enough.
“My mum just told me to turn on the waterworks, and that’s what I did!” she says. “I just cried to this young female doctor – I wish I knew her name to thank her – and they sent me for a CT scan.”
A week later – and a day after her birthday – Tash received the call that would change her life: Yes, you have ovarian cancer, and can you come in now?
“That was the first time that ‘cancer’ entered my brain and honestly, my life did the flash before my eyes, as cliched as it sounds.”
From there, Tash had surgery to remove her right ovary and fallopian tube and the tumour, which was biopsied and confirmed to contain ovarian cancer. Tash then lost her uterus and left ovary, which has left her unable to have children.
“It feels like an attack on your womanhood, honestly,” she nods. “It’s really hard for the younger women who haven’t gone through menopause – it’s so hard. And going through menopause is a whole other thing – I’m so glad women are finally starting to speak about that because, God!”
Cancer obviously leaves a huge physical mark, but Tash says you emerge from the battle scarred in many other ways too.
“Yeah, there’s the multiple surgeries and treatments, but then there’s the infertility, there’s the impact on your relationship – menopause affects your sexual health – and you’re dealing with so much trauma. So, it just feels like you’re under a huge pile of rocks, really.”
Now clear of cancer “Thank God – I mean, I still visit my gyne team but I think I have just one more visit before I’m in the five-year clear stage and I will DEFINITELY be celebrating on that day!” she says – Tash’s focus lies with Talk Peach, which she founded in 2016 during her cancer treatments.
“I think there was some survivors guilt in there,” she says. “I knew I needed to do something, because there was pretty much nothing. I didn’t want people to feel the isolation that I felt, and so many other people in our community feel, going through all this. It’s hard when you have one of the five gynaecological cancers that no-one talks about, so you do feel very much alone.”
The key is knowing the signs and symptoms, she says – in fact, it’s what saved her life. Talk Peach are also determined to help educate and advocate for better resources, awareness, and funding, as well as promote further research, clinical trials and better pathways to diagnostic testing.
“When you know what you’re looking for, you’re empowered and you’re in a much better position to advocate for yourself,” Tash tells. “Simply put, early detection saves lives.”
Symptoms of the five gynaecological cancers include: (For a full list for each cancer, please visit talkpeach.org.nz)
- Any growths, bumps, spots, rashes or moles (regular self-checking of the vulva is vital)
- Persistent bloating
- Pelvic pain
- Changes in bowel habits
- Menstrual irregularities
- Bleeding between periods
- Blood in urine
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Main photo credit: Abhi Chinniah