Dr Alisha Thomson refuses to be defined by her cancer and is rolling up her sleeves to help raise awareness and generate funding for clinical research.
The 29-year-old James Cook University medical graduate and psychiatry trainee was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer two years ago, despite feeling “on top of the world” at the time.
“It is a terrible truth, but we are a bunch of professionals who never look after ourselves as well as our patients,” Dr Thomson said, recalling how long she delayed investigating her warning symptoms.
“My life was everything I could have asked for. I was happy. I had good friends. I enjoyed playing touch football and attending the gym. I had bought a house. I was passionate about my career as a doctor. I had been accepted into psychiatry training; the first step toward my goal to become a psychiatrist. I had big dreams.”
Following her diagnosis, Dr Thomson did some googling, even though she had been warned not to do so. Having studied cancer in medical school, she already knew that her prognosis was very poor.
“I looked up my survival rate. At that time, the chance of living five years was 17 per cent,” she said.
“There is no pleasant way of delivering bad news – it will still be bad news. My doctor, however, was amazing. She was empathetic. She went through it slowly, answered questions. I tried not to cry, but I did.”
At the time, doctors were amazed she was still playing touch football regularly as the cancer had already metastasised (spread to other parts of the body).
They have been equally impressed by Dr Thomson’s resilience during chemotherapy. Now undergoing her second course of treatment, exercise including gym, mountain biking, surfing and touch football remains a major part of her life.
“Part of my positivity, I believe, is due to staying active,” she said. “I encourage all that can to exercise, while listening to their body and knowing their personal limitations.”
Fiercely independent, Dr Thomson has refused to adopt “the sick role”, despite initial attempts by family and friends to wrap her in cotton wool.
“When you're first diagnosed, suddenly everyone thinks you are fragile,” she said. “I had people offering to cook me food. I had friends who actually bought me a voucher for a house cleaner. But physically, I felt fine.
“I think people need to go, ‘You know what? That person might have cancer, but they're still the same person’. So try to act normal.
“Because I'm on some cancer support groups, I've started meeting some ladies with ovarian cancer.
“Most will tell you that they have lost at least a couple of friends, who didn't know how to talk to them about their diagnosis. So they just avoided them – even when they were in remission.”
Dr Thomson believes there is a lack of understanding and awareness of ovarian cancer, which is translating into a lack of funding for research that could lead to better health outcomes.
“When I was first diagnosed, a number of women said, ‘didn't you get your pap smear?’ I told them that pap smears detect cervical cancer, not ovarian cancer,” she said. “There is no screening for ovarian cancer. Women don't know their own bodies and what they're having these tests for.”
“A lot of people know about the kinds of cancers that get a lot of publicity, but not many know about ovarian cancer and a range of other cancers. So they don't get the fundraising for research.”
“Breast cancer affects more women, but the five-year survival rate is at 90 per cent. My chance of living five years, with Stage 4 ovarian cancer, is 17 per cent. But the overall five-year survival rate for women with ovarian cancer is still only about 43 per cent.”
Dr Thomson has signed up to fundraise for the small, not-for-profit Australian New Zealand Gynaecology Oncology Group (ANZGOG) ‘Save the Box’ campaign.
“I'm very adamant about checking where the money goes,” she said. “Because of my medical background, I wanted to see it go to research. The money from this ANZGOG campaign goes to funding gynaecological cancer clinical trials in Australia.”
Amazingly, the initial fundraising target of $5,000 was achieved in just over 24 hours. So Dr Thomson has upped the ante, increasing her fundraising target to $20,000 by the end of October.
Dr Thomson said she is keen to maintain the fundraising momentum and continue to raise awareness of ovarian cancer once this target is achieved. She is exploring other fundraising avenues and hopes to organise a major event in Townsville during Ovarian Cancer Month in February 2019.
Click here to make a donation to the Australian New Zealand Gynaecology Oncology Group ‘Save the Box’ campaign.
You can also follow Alisha Thomson’s journey via her blog and Instagram (leeshy_keepsmiling).