Thursday 26th May 2022

Women Of Courage Series. #52. Stella. 67/2020.

Women Of Courage Series. #52. Stella. 67/2020.

A series of blog posts on Denyse Whelan Blogs to be found here from mid-May 2019: Wednesdays: each week until the series concludes in 2020.

Here is the introduction to the series.

Courage is strength in the face of pain or grief. It’s doing something that frightens you. We face situations that demand courage every day. These situations provide us with choices, and the way we respond to those choices determines our future. Dayne Shuda.


I welcome Stella, who is 70 years old, to share her story as a woman of courage. However, I also need to share that ‘we’ have known each other for decades. In fact we grew up in a similar area of the Northern Beaches in Sydney and ended up being in the same classes from time to time at Manly Girls’ High. We are both in this photo. Can you find us? This was an image I shared in N.S.W. Education Week a few weeks ago. Stella and I ‘found’ each other again via facebook and another friend from that time, who has shared her story too. Ann Thanks for the nostalgic trip!

Stella Shares Her Story In Her Words, Here. 

  • This year is the 20th anniversary of the scariest time in my life. I was 50, really healthy, working full time and bringing up my two teenagers. Life was good and I had no worries.


  • One afternoon after work, I lay down to read, and saw in the wardrobe mirror that I had a very swollen abdomen. It was big enough to make me head straight off the bed and to go down to the doctor.  He was very off-handed, and said “So you’ve gained weight – what do you expect ME to do about that ?”


  • Until that point I’d always been a very shy and diffident person, and his words would normally have made me apologise for wasting his time  – and gone home feeling stupid.  Which could have been a death sentence for me.


  • For once in my life, I knew that I had to be courageous and speak up, advocate for myself and demand that he  pay some attention.  He did that , and sent me for an ultrasound which revealed a very large malignant ovarian cancer.


  • Within 24 hours I was in the hospital and had had a very long and serious operation. A week later I started having chemotherapy.  I faced all of that alone, since I had downplayed the situation to my family. My Dad had recently died, and I couldn’t bear to tell Mum and my kids that I might be going on the same path.


  • I plucked up all my courage, and did the whole thing solo. Every day I would meditate, and go for walks around the hospital, thinking positive thoughts and just enjoying little things like a new flower growing in the ward garden. I read good poetry , words to give me courage to face another day. The staff remarked on how calm I was, but it was really courage which was keeping me in that serene frame of mind.


  • One night my doctor popped his head around my door and told me had news. All the results had come back and as far as he could see, my cancer was in remission. It was great news, and I was able to go home  and back to work without too much stress.  The courage which I’d found within myself on that first day, stayed with me and gave me a very positive outlook.


  • Since that experience, I’ve become a spokesperson for women with ovarian cancer. I also trained as a phone counsellor, talking to women who’d just been diagnosed with the disease. I think that the courage I found on that first day, gives me a good inspiration when I talk to women – encouraging them to dig deep to find their courage, to demand good treatment and good communication with their doctors.


  • Ovarian cancer used to be called “The Silent Killer” because women didn’t know they had it until it was too late. 80% of them used to die. I’m one of the fortunate 20% , and with some courage in my back pocket I can speak for those 80% of sisters who didn’t survive to tell the tale.


Stella Burnell 2020 .




What have you faced in your life where you have had to be courageous?

  • I’ve had many experiences where courage was needed – in my work as a nurse I’ve often had to pull up my “big girl pants” and tough it out, but it was really my own experience with cancer which used my courage to heal myself.



How did this change you in any way? Please outline further if this has been the case.

  • I’d say that since the day that I first got the diagnosis, I’ve never again been the shy and retiring person that I used to be. It was a defining moment and I often use it when talking to other women, to illustrate how courage can help you to assert yourself in health situations. I am no longer the “invisible older woman” but have found my voice and I help other women to find theirs.


Is there something you learned from this that you could recommend to help others who need courage?

  • I learned that you don’t always need other people to support you, when the going gets tough. In the particular instance that I mention, I had to “fly solo” and in fact I found that it was easier because I didn’t have to be around other people. Solitude was a great healing factor !


Do you think you are able to be more courageous now if the life situation calls for it? Why is that?

  • Yes, I am. I found my courage at that time, and it stands me in good stead every day now.


Is there any message you would give to others facing a situation where courage could be needed?

  • In a health situation like mine, I’d say that education is a great thing. If you find out everything you can – as scary as that can be – you will be able to face up to any eventuality with courage.


Thank you so much Stella, education is so important in keeping our health under some person control and if not, then to know who to go to for more help. You did this is so many ways and as I know, via the links above, have most likely helped many women who have faced a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.




Joining each Wednesday with Sue and Leanne here for Mid Life Share the Love Linky.

On Thursdays I link here for Lovin Life with Leanne and friends.

Copyright © 2020 – All rights reserved.






  1. I admire your courage Stella going through treatment alone must have taken great strength. I witnessed the ravages of chemo when my Mum was having treatment over 30 years ago so to do it on your own is amazing. I agree that we need to educate ourselves in order to be prepared and although it is scary it is better than the unknown. Thanks Denyse for sharing Stella’s story with us at #MLSTL. x

    • Stella’s story epitomises courage in the face of all that is scary. I am glad she decided to share and it is a women’s health awareness post within it. Stella has helped others who have faced this not well known and often fatal cancer.

      Thank you Sue, and it is hard too when you have those memories of your mother’s battle to even imagine going through it alone.


    • Thanks Sue – yes I do think that if we can educate women to be aware of the symptoms of ovarian cancer, its a good start. And encouraging them to speak up – don’t take no for an answer when you see your doctor ! They are often very under-educated about ovarian cancer and we need to be assertive , though I know that we often feel quite the opposite when faced with a health problem.

      Cheers, Stella .

  2. Michele T Halpin says:

    Wow, what a story, thank you Stella. I completely understand your reasoning for going solo when faced with such a life-defining moment but don’t know that I could be that courageous. I’ve no doubt newly diagnosed patients would gain much confidence in thoughts of their future after chatting with you. All the best for the future Stella.

    • Thank you Michele, yes I do hope that Stella’s story also might help others.

      None of us actually knows what we ARE capable of until we are faced with a significant life challenge such as a cancer diagnosis.

      Education and support for those diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer is critical.


    • Thanks Michele , yes I guess we all have to walk our own journey , don’t we. I know that many people like to have a lot of support, but sometimes it’s good to spend time alone when you are going through issues like this. As a nurse I’ve often seen people totally surrounded by family , never alone, and maybe that’s their path . I guess I’m a natural loner, so flying solo is my preferred method !

  3. Hi Stella. I had ovarian cancer at age 49 in 1996. I seemed to be losing weight on top but my waist and belly were bigger. When I really blew up because of the fluid/ascites, it took me a couple of weeks to be diagnosed. It was certainly a watershed in my life and people need to know that a gradual and painless bloating in the abdomen can be a sign of ovarian cancer. I did have the support of my husband at that time but sometimes it felt as if I was supporting him! He was a very useful chauffeur and shopper but he couldn’t face the terror and sadness I felt when I feared leaving my teenage sons with no mum. If you’re a mother and you get cancer I feel there is an internal maternal force that keeps you going. Reading poetry is a beautiful idea.

    • Thank you for sharing your story with Ovarian Cancer too Maureen.

      I am sure Stella will find it of great interest too.


    • Hi Maureen,

      Thanks for you comments . Yes I do think that as a mother you will do anything to keep going for your children. We’d just lost my dear Dad a few months before I got sick, and my great fear was that my Mum and my children would have to deal with losing me as well. Although I’m not a great believer in the concept of “fighting to stay alive ” I do think that as a mother you can dig deep in your soul to drag up great stores of emotional energy in order to keep going !

      Great to hear that you also had a good outcome,

      Cheers Stella

  4. Hi Stella – thanks for sharing your story, and well done on being brave enough to stand up and advocate for yourself. It’s something we women often don’t do (to our own detriment). It was also incredibly courageous to go through the surgery, chemo and more on your own – a very noble and difficult undertaking. I’m so glad you’re here to tell your story. #MLSTL

    • I loved that part: I am so glad you’re here to tell your story.

      What a truism.

      Thank you Leanne for your generous and kind words to Stella.


      • Hi Leanne, and thanks,

        Yes I do think that women in general, don’t advocate for themselves. They’ll do it for their families, but when it comes to themselves they will be much more hesitant. We seem to be hard-wired that way !

        Thanks for your kind words,

        Cheers Stella

  5. Hi Stella, I can’t start to imagine going through this sort of serious surgery on my own, so I have to say I admire your courage.I’m glad to hear you found your voice that day and have gone on to use it helping others as well. Thanks Denyse for introducing Stella to us and sharing her story of courage. #mlstl

    • It sure is a brave move but one we could all do to an extent when we might have to…we just never know our inner resources till they are put to the test. I know you have had that happen for you too under different circumstances, Deb!

      Thanks for your kind words, I am sure Stella will be chuffed to read them.


    • Hi Debbie and thanks ,

      Yes that day was a tipping point for me. I’d always been very shy and hesitant about speaking up in any situation, but I knew on that day that I had to advocate for myself ! It was very freeing, and it probably saved my life.

      I’m very vocal about women’s health issues now !

      My sister died of liver cancer when she was 50 , and when I got cancer at the same age and survived, I went through a “why me” period, I guess you’d call it survivor guilt. I kept thinking “why did I survive when my lovely sister didn’t ?” . I came to the conclusion that maybe I survived so I could tell other women about speaking up and advocating for themselves. Women like my sister , and all the other sisters who didn’t make it, can’t speak up, but I can , and I’ve made it my mission to help others women who are going down the same path.

      Thanks for your kind comments,

      Cheers Stella.

  6. You certainly were courageous Stella, in facing your surgery alone. Well done on speaking up and demanding to be taken seriously.

    • Thanks Jennifer,

      Yes , flying solo isn’t for everyone ! But it worked for me . I learned a lot in that time, and it has really changed my approach to health issues.

      Cheers, Stella.

    • I so agree Jennifer. What a good outcome though in terms of health recovery and helping others as a result.


  7. Wow. Glad it was all right in the end, and really glad you made that GP get his diagnosis in order! Maybe that’s why the stats are so much better these days. More and more women speak up!!

    • Thanks Lydia, it is still a horrid disease with no clear symptoms.

      Often they are not recognised until it’s too late. Journalist and ABC radio presenter from Newcastle Jill Emberson died from it late last year but in her years from diagnosis, used her skills as a person in the media to get funding and more info out from the Australian Govt.

      Stella’s story tells of her courage in a very clear way I think. To then go on and help others with awareness was a great initiative.


  8. I dread to think how many women have had that death sentence because they haven’t gone with their instincts and advocated for themselves. And to do it alone? That takes courage. Thanks, Denyse for bringing us another story of true courage.

    • It’s tough disease to recognise and as Stella said ‘to keep on asking the questions.’

      Many women of course may not do so and sadly it remains a deadly cancer for them.

      The work of Jill Emberson (see comment to Lydia) from Newcastle helped raise greater awareness and she took her story to Canberra re funding for research.

      Thanks Jo,


  9. Such an amazing story, Stella. You saved your own life, and your story could save others who may at first be afraid to speak up to doctors or others in authority. I wish you much health and happiness! Take care of yourself.

    • That is such a good way to see it, Christie. Yes indeed, Stella saved her life and in doing so and being proactive has potentially saved others.

      Thank you for your kind words.

  10. Wow Stella! You had me at “This year is the 20th anniversary of the scariest time in my life. ”
    You did all that alone!
    I wonder how many people would have gone home after that first doctor visit. How lucky you are that you pushed the doctor into investigating further.
    Great story and very inspiring.
    Thanks so much for sharing.