For as long as I can remember, I’ve been insecure about my stomach.
I took up powerlifting when I was 21 years old, which made me feel more in control of my body. But while it toned my arms and legs, my stomach still stuck out like I was bloated.
My abdomen was also a source of physical pain. Since I was about 15 years old, I’d randomly feel sharp jolts in my lower right side. The sensation was somewhere between a period cramp and stabbing sensation.
I knew something had to be wrong. So over the next nine years, I made sure to mention this mysterious pain to three primary-care physicians and four gynecologists. But every time I brought it up, they brushed it off.
After all, I was 5 feet 2 and weighed 185 pounds. Even though I was extremely muscular, that meant I was obese on paper. Each doctor made me feel like my bloating issues and sudden aches could be solved with lean protein, portion control, and cutting carbs. I always explained how careful I was with my diet, but it didn’t seem to matter to them.
By summer 2017, I was 24. It had been several years since I first flagged the sudden cramps to my doctors, and now the cramps were hitting almost daily. I still had no idea what was going on.
That August, I was walking on the Wildwood, New Jersey, boardwalk with my boyfriend, Joe, when I buckled over in pain. It felt like someone hit me across the pelvis with a shovel. When Joe begged me to see a doctor, I rolled my eyes. I had an annual with my gynecologist the following month and decided I’d bring up my symptoms again.
But just like every other time, she shrugged off my concerns. Instead, she addressed my diet: “Some people just need to work a little harder,” she said after I insisted I was careful about what I ate. She added that if I was “really that concerned” about the pain, she could do an ultrasound to see if there was anything to worry about. Her dismissive tone made me feel like the expensive procedure would be a waste. So I let it go.
Over the next few weeks, the pain migrated from my right side, to my stomach, to my arms and legs. My whole body was radiating with cramplike pain. Sometimes it hurt so bad, I couldn’t get out of bed. My thirst was unquenchable, and I constantly felt full.
At the time, I was super busy with a big work project, so I chalked up my symptoms to stress. And since my primary-care physician and go-to gyno couldn’t find anything wrong with me, I figured it would pass. Little did I know, these were textbook symptoms of ovarian cancer.
By the end of October, the cramping became so severe that I had to miss work. I finally went to an urgent-care center. During my exam, the doctor gently touched my abdomen, and it hurt so much I literally jumped. He recommended I get an MRI immediately.
In the hospital emergency room, the doctor ordered a vaginal ultrasound rather than an MRI to save money and time. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was very, very wrong. Tears streamed down my face throughout the 20-minute procedure.
After waiting for hours, an ER doctor told me I had a common cyst that would go away on its own. He prescribed Tylenol. I went home and felt like an idiot.
The next day, while cradling a heating pad in bed, the same doctor called to say he’d misread the scan. The cyst was actually closer to 10 centimeters in diameter. “Anything of this size is worrisome for cancer,” he told me.
I shot up. It was the first time I’d even considered I might have cancer. He told me I should make an appointment with my gynecologist ASAP.
Later that day, I went into my gyno’s office for another scan. A nurse practitioner filling in for my regular doctor suggested it might be an operable dermoid cyst, a benign mass that starts growing at birth. Although cancer was at the forefront of my mind, the nurse practitioner repeatedly told me the chance the mass was cancer was less than 1 percent.
I scheduled a preoperative appointment with a new ob-gyn-my regular gyno was away-for the following week. In his office, the doctor, who had reviewed my blood work, said I had a slightly elevated level of a cancer antigen called CA-125, which can detect ovarian cancer. He told me not to worry but that he’d run some extra blood tests just to be safe. I scheduled surgery for three days later.
Once I’d checked into the hospital on the day of my surgery, I was sent to the nurse’s station to take a call. I was so confused.
I held the phone to my ear. It was my doctor calling to tell me he’d canceled my surgery. My blood tests revealed alarmingly high levels of the protein AFP and the enzyme LDH, which signaled that the mass was actually a cancerous tumor.
Everything around me went blurry. After that, the only thing I remember him saying was “likely cancer” and “see our oncologist.” I didn’t realize I was shaking until a nearby nurse tried to calm me down. My mom, who’d taken me to the hospital, heard me panicking and rushed over to hold me as I sobbed.
At my family’s house later that day, I remained dazed as my parents worked to find new doctors. My boyfriend sat beside me, obsessively Googling my blood results. He hoped that my diagnosis was some kind of medical mistake. My brother was there, too, nodding as I said, “I’m not the kind of person who gets cancer,” over and over.
A few days later, I went to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York to meet an oncologist. I looked like the youngest person in the unit.
I met with my surgeon, who reviewed my test results and quickly diagnosed me with a malignant ovarian germ-cell tumor. She told me it was definitely cancerous and extremely rare. In fact, only about 2 percent of ovarian cancers are in this form. Still, she couldn’t say for sure if the mass had been growing for years or just a few months
She said my pain was likely getting worse over the last few weeks as the growing tumor weighed down my right ovary like an anchor, causing it to twist. She assured me it was curable, but I’d need the mass removed as soon as possible.
I don’t know if I was numb or relieved to finally have a definitive answer, but I didn’t cry. For the first time in my life, a doctor took me seriously and found an answer rather than dismissing me. I was obviously devastated and afraid, but I also felt every concern I ever had was validated. I wanted to tell every doctor who blew me off, “F*ck you.”
Later that day, I told my boss I’d be out of work for longer than I expected, and I had cancer. It felt so surreal to say out loud.
On November 2, 2017, the Sloan Kettering team took out my tumor, my right ovary, and right fallopian tube. When they opened me up, surgeons discovered the honeydew-size mass was pushing against my kidney. It measured about seven inches across. During the two-hour surgery, doctors also biopsied surrounding organs to check whether the cancer had spread.
I was in the hospital for five days after. My mom slept on a stiff chair next to my bed every night. She stayed by my side as I screamed in pain from the surgery and cried about not knowing what would come next.
At this point, my pathology report hadn’t come back. I didn’t know what stage my cancer was, if it had spread, or if I would need chemo. All the unknowns gave me more anxiety than I’d ever felt. A week and a half after the surgery, my parents drove me through an hour and a half of rush-hour traffic into Manhattan to find out.
There was a small chance a few remaining cancer cells could grow into something worse than before, so I’d need chemotherapy to make sure it was gone for good. I felt the wind knocked out of me. I hated the idea of cancer affecting the way I felt and the way I looked.
At that point, I was shocked that none of my doctors had caught this. The tumor was giant, and my gynecologist never even bothered to touch my stomach when I complained of pain. I fixated on whether I even would need chemo had someone caught this sooner, although my doctors wouldn’t say if that was the case.
I did three cycles of aggressive intravenous chemo. Each one was three weeks long. During that time, I felt like I had the worst hangover of my life times 10.
I didn’t want cancer to completely take over my life, so I kept working through my last cycle before I went on medical leave. But by the end of my first cycle, my hair started falling out.
Just before the beginning of my second chemo cycle, most of my hair was gone, and the rest was matted and knotted together. My scalp was so tender I couldn’t brush it, and the chemo kept my head from producing oils that my strands needed to stay soft and moisturized. I impulsively decided to buzz it off.
When it was over, I couldn’t look in the mirror or even force myself to touch my scalp. I didn’t want to know what having no hair felt like. Instead, I just took a deep breath. To me, the worst was finally behind me.
Feeling a sense of closure, I decided to write my former gyno a letter explaining everything that went down after I switched doctors. I told her that my tumor was, despite what her team told me, 100 percent cancerous and suggested they work on their bedside manner. She wrote back with no apology, ending her note with “I wish you all the best.” Still, I said what I needed to say so I was satisfied.
As I finished chemo, I started to find some peace with my old doctors who missed my cancer. I stopped asking myself, “What if it was caught earlier?” or “What if there was something I could have done to prevent this?” I realized I had to let go of all those questions to end this miserable chapter of my life.
Cancer had taken a physical and emotional toll on me, and I couldn’t let obsessing over the past consume me too. All I cared about was getting better and notifying the doctors of what they missed. I didn’t want them making the same mistake again with someone else.
About two weeks after I finished chemo, I received a bill from my former gynecologist: $12.99 for an ultrasound. In the grand scheme of cancer bills, this was barely a drop in the bucket. But rather than paying, I sent the affiliated hospital a letter explaining why they didn’t deserve my $13. I haven’t heard back.
Today, I’m officially in remission.
Even though the scars will fade and I’ll eventually have my long, curly hair back, the mental toll of my illness likely will follow me forever. I’ll never be able to brush off a random ache without fearing it’s more cancer that my doctors won’t catch.
Still, I control what I can. I’m back in the gym, building up my strength so I can finally feel like myself again, I make jokes to cope when someone brings up the C word, and I don’t let myself feel dumb about being the person who asks doctors a thousand little questions.
At the end of the day, I tell myself that I’ve done everything in my power to have my own back. No patronizing or dismissive doctor can take that away from me.
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