Trekking Larapinta & telling her story to help save other women’s lives

Ovarian cancer survivor Meredith Johnston admits she had the wobbles on the day we spoke about trekking the Larapinta Trail. She had experienced some abdominal pain. Meredith’s scientific brain was saying it’s probably OK, but she found it hard to dismiss the fear that cancer had returned.

“I was lucky and unlucky to have Stage 1A ovarian cancer,” Meredith said. “Lucky because it was diagnosed early and treated quickly. Unlucky because no one wants cancer, let alone ovarian cancer. Many women are diagnosed late with this cancer, and only 46 per cent survive for five years or more, despite the advances we’ve seen in research and technology.”

Meredith works in a science laboratory at the University of the Sunshine Coast. One day, she went to a Pilates class before work, and when she laid down on her stomach to exercise, she felt pain.

“I put it down to gluten intolerance, but my workmates insisted that I went to see my GP immediately,” she said. “Less than two weeks later, I was in surgery. The ultrasound showed a 15-centimetre cyst filled with fluid and a tissue mass, but it didn’t indicate it was cancerous. In surgery, the doctors discovered that it was.”

After surgery, Meredith had six chemotherapy cycles to minimise any risk from cancer cells that may have shed into her abdominal cavity. “It was physically very tough, but I wanted to make sure I’d done enough,” she explained. “Now, I see Professor Obermair every four months for a check-up and blood tests.”

After Meredith got her first ‘all-clear’, she went to the 2019 QCGC Research Patient Symposium. “They spoke about the Larapinta Trail, and I signed up on the spot. I’ve never been to the Northern Territory, I’ve never done a fundraising trek, and I’ve not bushwalked very much, but I feel so strongly that we need to do more to raise awareness and funds for research into this disease.”

“I’m someone who likes to fix things. I’m not comfortable being the person who asks for help, but I know I’ve got to do it. Thankfully, my family is behind me. My husband is my fundraising manager, and my children are training with me. My cancer diagnosis was never just about me – our whole family went through it.”

A few weeks ago, Meredith lost a friend to ovarian cancer. “Her death made me reflect again on how grateful I am to my work colleagues for insisting I went to the doctor and to the amazing medical team who treated me and to my husband, who kept reminding me it was Stage 1.”

Meredith started her career in medical research later in life. After leaving school in Australia, she travelled to the United Kingdom, where she worked for six years. She also met her first husband there, and they had children. Sadly, her husband died at 39 years old from a genetic disorder they didn’t know he had. Years later, back in Australia, Meredith decided to study biomedical science.

“I wanted to conduct medical research into my first husband’s condition, but research is a very long and difficult path. Today, I support scientists in the area of genetics and immunology. I understand how difficult it is to get funding support, which is another reason I’m trekking.”

Meredith has also volunteered for Survivors Teaching Students (STS), a program that takes ovarian cancer survivors into classrooms to teach medical students about women’s experiences with this cancer.

“I want to give back,” Meredith said. “I want everyone, especially young adults, to understand about this disease and not dismiss any symptoms. I find it hard to tell my story, but I know it’s important. Another STS volunteer put it this way: ‘You are here, and we need you to tell the story for the women who are no longer around to tell it themselves.’ So, I’m telling my story to help save other women’s lives.”