Champion for women

Paula Benson (Joe Mastroianni) 226296_02

Goya Dmytryshchak

A Williamstown woman who received an Australia Day honour for significant service to women with ovarian cancer has recalled her own diagnosis, which brought heartbreak but also gratitude.

Paula Benson, who formerly chaired Ovarian Cancer Australia, has been appointed a Member of the Order of Australia.

She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of 34 in 2003.

“I know I am one of the very lucky ones because my GP did all the right things for me,“ Ms Benson said.

“When I went to her, I had this unexplained abdominal bloating, changes in my urinary and bowel habits and I felt really full after eating not very much.

“She sent me straight off that morning for a transvaginal ultrasound and she got me in to see a gynaecological oncologist that night and I had the surgery the next week.

“No one thought that I would have ovarian cancer because I was young, I was 34 – largely, it’s women in their 50s, 60s, 70s who are diagnosed – and I have no history of ovarian or breast cancer in my family.

“So, no one suspected that it could be ovarian cancer; they could see that I had a large cyst attached to one of my ovaries and that the ovary was damaged and that the cyst and the ovary would need to be removed.

“When I woke up, my gyne-oncologist told me that she was very sorry but she’d found ovarian cancer and had to undertake a radical hysterectomy.

“It was very shocking for a young woman to have that experience but I know my cancer was diagnosed early, it hadn’t spread and I know how lucky I am.“

Ms Benson said she knew her story was not typical for most women with ovarian cancer, which prompted her to offer her services to Ovarian Cancer Australia in 2006.

The same year, she and spouse Stephen Conroy, a former Labor senator, had baby girl Isabella with the help of a surrogate mother and a separate egg donor.

“I do have a beautiful daughter,“ Ms Benson said.

“She’s 14 now.

“I was very fortunate. One of my girlfriends donated eggs and another girlfriend carried her for me, so I’m very lucky to be a mum.“

On learning of her Australia Day recognition, Ms Benson said she hoped it would raise more awareness of ovarian cancer.

“When I first found out about it I felt quite emotional really thinking about everything that we at Ovarian Cancer Australia have achieved over the past decade,“ she said.

“But I was just reflecting today, the same week that I found out about potentially receiving the award, I heard about another friend of mine who’s just been diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer and it was very grounding.

“We’ve achieved so much, we’ve done so much and I’m so proud of that but there is still so much more to do and we can’t rest until it’s done.“

Ovarian Cancer Australia said under Ms Benson’s stewardship the organisation had achieved significant milestones, including developing and implementing Australia’s first national action plan for ovarian cancer research, securing $3 million federal funding for the Traceback ovarian cancer prevention program and the commitment of $20 million for ovarian cancer research from the federal government’s Medical Research Future Fund.