It’s interesting how young children are diagnosed with cancer every day, but once someone in their twenties is diagnosed with the disease, all you hear or think about is how you’re simply too young to receive such a horrible diagnosis. Sure, many cancers are more common after age 50, 60, or even 70, but it still amazes me how surprised people are when they find out I was diagnosed with cancer at age 27. They always look at me like I’ve done something wrong. And yeah, it surprises me as well, but I know quite a few people who have had cancer in their twenties. Take my grandmother, for instance, and that was almost 60 years ago!
The purpose of this article isn’t only to share my story with the world, but to hopefully make a positive change in the future of cancer. We should all be angry and disgusted that cancer has become so prevalent in our society. We shouldn’t just accept that it happens, but instead, we need to work together, share our stories, and try to find a common theme. Why are so many people getting cancer? We need to find out. We need to focus on prevention and finding a cure.
Can chronic stress contribute to cancer?
When I was 26, my mom – who I’m proud to call my best friend – was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. Imagine losing your mother and best friend at the same time – it’s a horrifying thought. The thought of losing my mom was just too much, and I truly believe the insane amount of stress, sadness, and overall burnout of dealing with my mom’s diagnosis is what made me sick – or at least contributed to it. You can learn more about my mom’s cancer diagnosis here.
Since the day my mom had her colonoscopy performed, I started to feel poorly. I’d always been introverted and highly sensitive to the outside world, but from that day forward it turned into a whole new level of sadness, anxiety, anger, fatigue, and overall poor health. I was vegan, ate super healthy, and thought that I took good care of myself, but after I received the devastating news about my mom’s cancer, everything seemed to go downhill.
Now it probably sounds crazy for many people who don’t understand the connection between chronic stress and cancer (short-term stressors like the stress of giving a speech or a busy week at work at excluded), but I highly recommend that you read up on it and see for yourself.
Like many medical professionals, I believe that chronic stress can weaken the immune system, making you more susceptible to chronic illness. At the time, I was under so much stress and was dealing with so many things while everyone else around me was enjoying life and having fun. I was 25 years old, newly married, and was worrying about both of my parents dying and leaving me as an orphan at 25 years old. It’s crazy which types of things I started to worry about, but I really couldn’t help it. My mom is a single woman so my brother and I were her main caretakers, which just didn’t seem fair that we’d be dealing with this so early in life.
I couldn’t talk about my worries out loud either because that just made things feel “too real” so I kept them bottled up inside or cried in the shower or in the car when I was alone. The anxiety was unbearable. I really didn’t want to see friends or do anything fun, and I almost felt guilty if I ever started to laugh or do anything enjoyable. It was like I wanted to punish myself for something I couldn’t even control. Social isolation sounded like the only reasonable way to cope.
Plus, I feared talking to anyone about my problems because I didn’t want to hear their dreaded cancer story – you know, the story about their aunt/friend/relative who died of cancer. I mean, really people? Come on! I don’t think people were trying to intentionally make me feel bad, but their stories made me feel horrible. Anyway, we’ll touch on the dumb things people say later.
Overall, I felt like crap but I assumed it was from the sadness and the anxiety that I had been battling. I didn’t think I could have anything medically wrong with me because I ate a plant-based diet and thought I lived a pretty healthy life. At the time, I honestly thought I was like Wonder Woman when it came to cancer simply because I didn’t eat meat or dairy products. I assumed that my vegan diet completely protected me from disease (when in reality, a vegan diet DOES protect you from many types of cancers, like colon cancer, but other things also come into play too, like stress, environment, genetics, etc. I don’t think it’s ever just one thing.
What in the world is wrong with me?
In 2015, I started seeing a Nutrition Response Practitioner because I was having that horrible fatigued/foggy/general burnout feeling that I had started to notice a year earlier. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any success from my visits with her, but I am thankful that I went to her because she opened my eyes to a lot of things (more on that later). Most importantly, she kept hinting that she thought I looked pregnant, which was incredibly hurtful when she first mentioned it to me because I wasn’t pregnant and had no plans of getting pregnant.
At 5-foot-3 and 120 lbs, I was pretty insulted that she thought I looked pregnant. Plus, I was eating healthier than ever before. I was already stressing out about gaining some weight for the first time in my adult life, and thanks to having her make me believe that I was intolerant to just about every grain or gluten product under the sun (along with tons of peer pressure from her trying to encourage me to give up my vegan diet), I had eliminated practically my entire diet and really ate nothing but fruits and veggies. I avoided all sugars and processed junk food. For crying out loud, I was eating homemade veggie burgers in a romaine lettuce leaf to avoid eating bread. I was eating as healthy as possible, so then how the heck could I look pregnant, and why did I feel like crap?
At least 8 tests had already confirmed that I was not pregnant, and I was getting really tired of her asking me if I was sure that I wasn’t. At that point, my self esteem sucked and I was working out like crazy because I thought I needed to lose weight.
I started going to my conventional doctor for blood tests to check for autoimmune disease and other issues, but everything looked normal. “Keep doing what you’re doing!” The doctor would tell me. I would ask if my B12 could be low or something along those lines, but she just said “Nope, it shouldn’t be because most vegan products are fortified with B12.” I loved her positivity about my vegan diet (which was pretty rare) but at the same time I wanted her to test my B12 levels or do SOMETHING that would get me somewhere. Instead, they kept turning me away saying that nothing was wrong with me. They thought that my weight gain and fuller belly probably had to do with going off of the birth control pill.
Despite me telling them that I hadn’t had my period since going off of the pill (8 months earlier), it didn’t matter. They never once suggested a scan or any kind of cancer screening. They saw how much my weight had increased since my visit from a few months earlier. They noticed that all the pregnancy tests were negative despite my weight gain and no period. Plus, I complained of relentless fatigue and the disgusting acid reflux that crept back up into my esophagus and into my mouth every time I even attempted to bend over. At first glance, everything was fine. I was a healthy-looking 27-year-old with no serious medical problems.
They wrote “fatigue” on my health record and called it a day. I even tried telling them about the shooting pains I would get in my back or the back pains I would wake up with every morning. Plus, I had generally no energy and trying to ride a bike was comparable to someone in poor physical shape who hadn’t hopped on a bike in 10 years. Hell, maybe their physical activity levels would’ve been better than mine was at the time. No matter how often I worked out, I was always sore, exhausted, and never lost weight. Plus, I was instantly out of breath.
Googling the “C” word
The summer of 2015 sucked, but I was happy that my parents were feeling great and things were finally looking up. At the time, I was a writer for a nonprofit and we wrote a lot of articles promoting cancer awareness months. September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month so I was doing research for the article I was writing about it. I started to realize that not only was I writing about Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, but I was also opening my eyes to an issue I hadn’t even considered could be a possibility. One by one my symptoms were listed right in front me:
- abdominal bloating, pressure, and pain
- abnormal fullness after eating
- difficulty eating
- an increase in urination
- an increased urge to urinate
Ovarian cancer can also cause other symptoms, such as:
- back pain
- menstrual irregularities or abnormal menstrual bleeding
- painful intercourse
Now, I can’t say that I had EVERY symptom, but it was pretty freaking close. I got that feeling in my gut and knew something was seriously wrong. My stomach felt hard and round and I didn’t look or feel like myself at all. Plus, a super nice lady from my workplace (yes, I am being sarcastic) asked if I was pregnant and then I was really pissed off and felt even lousier than ever.
Also at that point, I had been doing yoga for three years and was unable to do the poses that I was once able to do. It hurt to bend over or do anything at all. I just kept getting worse and worse.
Eventually, September came around and I began waking up every morning with a horrible pain on the right side of my back. It just kept getting worse and worse. It would sometimes go away during the day but always would come back. Then, I woke up in such pain one morning that I had to call in sick to work, which I never did. It was to the point that I could not walk or move, the pain was so bad. I went into a different doctor that same day and she had me do one last pregnancy test, felt my stomach and agreed that something was up, and scheduled an ultrasound for that Saturday. She said that there was definitely something going on, but it could easily be a fibroid or even a large cyst so I tried not to worry. I was bedridden until the ultrasound came around and was unable to move from the couch. The pain just got worse and worse and I had acid reflux just about around the clock. My throat burned pretty much constantly.
Getting that evening phone call
Two days after the ultrasound, my doctor called me at 9 p.m. one evening as soon as the results came in and told me that they found a large mass in my abdomen (29.3 cm in cranial-caudal dimension), most likely originating from the right ovary. This is what was what was causing me to look pregnant – the tumor was literally taking up the entire space of my abdomen. It was pushing on my kidneys and causing hydronephrosis in both of the kidneys (explaining that awful back pain). I was told that I needed to contact the University of Minnesota’s Gynecological Cancer Clinic the next day and get in there as soon as possible. She said that the tumor very well could be benign, but there was no way of knowing right away.
Thankfully, the U of M was able to get me in the next day and I met with my oncologist as he went over the ultrasound results (which was upsetting for me to see an oncologist BEFORE I even knew if it really was cancer). It all happened so fast. The oncologist said that I would need major open surgery since the tumor was too large for laparoscopic or minor surgery, but they would do their best to make the incision as small as possible. He told me that I needed the surgery as quickly as possible, and that I could even be at risk of kidney failure. Plus, they couldn’t know for sure if it actually was cancer or how far along the cancer was until after the surgery. He explained everything in the best, most positive way possible which was very comforting.
At that point, I was so scared and terrified of having major surgery, but I was in so much pain that I just wanted to the tumor to be gone. I signed the surgical consent forms to have any organs removed during surgery that showed signs of cancer, and gave my consent to have a full hysterectomy done if needed, and we scheduled the surgery for a few days out.
Recovering from surgery
Long story short, I needed to have the surgery sooner than we had originally planned (due to worsening pain) and I ended up having a right salpingo-oophorectomy, evacuation of pelvic fluid, exploratory laparotomy, bilateral pelvic and periaortic lymph node dissection, infracolic omentectomy, appendectomy and peritoneal biopsies. In easier understanding, it included the removal of the right ovary and fallopian tube, omentum, appendix, and 43 lymph nodes removed (who knew lymph node removal could be so painful – ouch!).
During surgery, the surgical team pulled my family aside to explain that my tumor was being labeled a “borderline tumor” which meant that it was unclear whether or not the tumor was cancerous, so we needed to wait to find out until after the biopsy results were ready. After spending several days in the hospital, I went home to begin the recovery process (which was absolutely miserable, I’m not going to lie – but I was just so thankful that I survived the surgery)!
Two weeks later we went in for my post-op appointment and to discuss the biopsy results. During my post-op appointment, we found out that my tumor was malignant and that it was stage 1a (grade 1), which is the best possible scenario one could hope for when being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. My formal diagnosis was considered an ovarian mucinous adenocarcinoma, with expansile invasion.
I was INCREDIBLY lucky. Having signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer (especially in the earliest stage) is practically unheard of. Most people do not find out that they have ovarian cancer until it has already spread beyond the ovaries. I am still trying to figure out the WHY and HOW so that I can be sure that it doesn’t come back again.
Where did I go wrong?
I feel incredibly lucky that my cancer was discovered so early and that the surgery was successful, but at the same time I’m asking myself WHY would I be diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 27-years-old? What the hell did I do wrong? Was it something in the environment, my genes, the chronic stress, those birth control pills, a certain type of food I ate, or what? I didn’t fit the statistics for ovarian cancer at all. I’m young, was supposedly healthy, I ate mostly healthy foods, and I took birth control pills (which is supposed to be the one way to actually prevent ovarian cancer). What the hell?
Even though I still don’t know what caused my ovarian cancer, I’m glad to be able to spread the word and help make other people aware of the signs and symptoms that they may be experiencing. I’m still trying to improve my overall health and wellness (unfortunately, you don’t always immediately feel better after the tumor gets removed) and now I’m actually dealing with a form of post-traumatic stress, which my doctor believes is totally normal in a case like this.
Since my cancer was only in stage 1, chemotherapy and radiation were not recommended to me. I ended up having a follow-up colonoscopy and endoscopy to ensure that the cancer had not spread anywhere else in the body (because apparently my cancer had some traits that were similar to certain cases of colon cancer, and because of my family history). For my own self-assurance, I also had a head/brain CT scan performed which thankfully came back normal.
I go in to see my doctor every three months for a check-up, physical, and sometimes have a scan and blood work performed. My doctor is great, but not all doctors are created equal. Don’t always trust the doctors word-for-word; trust and listen to your gut. In this case, I had to trust my growing belly that turned out to be a 20 lb tumor I was lugging around (yes, pun intended).
Don’t give up – if you feel like something is wrong – you’re not a hypochondriac. It just means that you know more about yourself than everyone else does. Keep fighting for answers and don’t give up! Doctors still have a lot to learn. With people like you and I, we can change that.