Dawn Sulley has been on an incredible journey with Peter Mac and the Royal Women’s Hospital following her diagnosis of stage 4 ovarian cancer in 2019.

Almost three years on, the 62-year-old is sharing her story to encourage other women to look out for early, and easily mistaken, symptoms of ovarian cancer.

Life before her diagnosis was typical for Dawn, working as an diversional therapist and trainer in aged care, going on scenic drives, and spending time with loved ones.

Back in 2019, however, things changed. Dawn was experiencing persistent, sharp pain in her right side, that wouldn’t go away. Her GP, who knew Dawn’s background with irritable bowel syndrome, diagnosed her with diverticulitis – an inflammatory condition of the digestive track.

Symptoms persisted and Dawn decided to seek a second opinion, which resulted in immediate scans and a diagnosis of stage 4 ovarian cancer.

There are around 1,700 new cases of ovarian cancer diagnosed in Australia each year, with the average five-year survival rate around 48 per cent.

“After you receive a diagnosis of ovarian cancer, everything happens at once,” said Dawn.

“I was put in touch with the surgical team at the Royal Women’s Hospital. Some surgeons specialised in gynacological procedures while others did lower abdominal surgery. I went through debulking cytoreductive surgery, where they take out everything they can, followed by chemotherapy.”

Dawn also contributed to research, donating tissue to a special project that looked at genetic links to ovarian cancer. It was discovered that Dawn had a mutation in the BRCA2 gene, which is often seen in women with ovarian, breast and pancreatic cancer. 

Associate Professor Orla McNally, Director of Gynaecology and Cancer Services at the Women’s, leads a multi-disciplinary team that works across Peter Mac, where Dawn received her chemotherapy, and the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

 “Ovarian cancer is the deadliest of all gynaecological cancers, so we are working extremely hard in both a treatment and research capacity to improve the prognosis and and quality of life for women diagnosed,” she said.”

Since her diagnosis, Dawn sees things a little differently, saying she is “definitely more patient” and notices small things she didn’t before. However, she would like all women to know one thing.

“My message to all women is to not disregard symptoms, no matter how slight. Know your body and ask for a second opinion. It was the willingness of a second GP to look beyond the obvious that saved my life.” 

As part of Ovarian Cancer Awarness Month, women are encouraged to learn the signs of ovarian cancer:

  • Increased abdominal size or persistent abdominal bloating
  • Abdominal or pelvic (lower tummy) pain
  • Feeling full after eating a small amount
  • Needing to urinate often or urgently

Additional symptoms:

  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Unexplained weight gain or loss
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Lower back pain
  • Indigestion or nausea
  • Bleeding after menopause or in-between periods

For more information, visit the Peter Mac webpagethe Women's webpage or go to Ovarian Cancer Australia.