Written by Chloé Etheridge.
"If you take anything away from reading this, please do not ignore persistent discomfort in your body"
Image: Chloé Etheridge.
Ovarian cancer symptoms can be quiet. But this does not mean it is a so-called “silent killer”, it simply means we are not listening to our bodies hard enough.
For a deadly, creeping, destructive disease, I had always expected cancer to announce itself fiercely. I imagined horror film scenes of blood pouring from eyes or limbs spontaneously falling off. By contrast, when my first symptoms of germ cell ovarian cancer arrived, they were mildly uncomfortable rather than agonising. I find it especially cruel that such a lethal disease does not announce itself more obviously.
In December 2021, I was 23 years old and peeing all the time. I shrugged this off as a classic UTI and took antibiotics. After a week, I noticed that I was still glued to the loo, but I was busy and couldn’t be bothered to fight for a GP appointment, so I decided to ignore it.
Around this time, I also spotted my constantly bloated stomach. I vividly recall staring in the mirror and being sure that my abdomen didn’t usually look that hard and round, but I dismissed it as my teenage body dysmorphia distorting my perception.
In February 2022, I experienced the worst abdominal pain of my life. The kind that makes you break out in a cold sweat and melts your knees to jelly. I now know this was probably ovarian torsion, caused by the ginormous tumours expanding inside of me. Once again, I overlooked this, embarrassed, thinking I had trapped wind!
Dipping into a sun salutation on my belly in March, I finally felt a lump in my lower stomach. I instantly knew something was wrong. I finally saw a doctor in person, who booked me an ultrasound. The first question they asked me when I undid my jeans was “any cancer in the family?”, I hastily replied “no”. Thinking I was safe, an alarming google search afterwards informed me my symptoms could either be a benign cyst or a malignant tumour. It was ovarian cancer awareness month too.
I didn’t make it to my ultrasound appointment because in the meantime the crippling pain was back, I was constipated and felt full very quickly when eating. Attempting to downplay any panic, I visited the local urgent treatment centre instead of big scary A&E. I couldn’t possibly be that sick.
The doctor took one look at me and sent me to A&E immediately. From there, a bubbly nurse exclaimed she was “baffled” by the masses in my pelvis, clearly crushing all my other abdominal organs. I slumped in the waiting room looking at the staff names on a corkboard, hoping I wouldn’t be seeing anyone in the ‘gynaecology-oncology’ team.
It took an achingly long three months to get a firm diagnosis after two biopsies and multiple consultants scratching their heads. Potential diagnoses of benign, borderline and lymphoma-related tumours buzzed around. None correct. My belly filled up with 12 litres of a fluid called ascites, this pressed against my ribs suffocating me.
Then on the 11th July 2022 I conclusively received the diagnosis over the phone: stage 3 dysgerminoma, a type of ovarian germ cell cancer. I began emergency chemotherapy the next day at Charing Cross Hospital in London, a specialist centre for my rare cancer. There was no time to be scared. I completed two rounds of deceptively easy etoposide and cisplatin, levelling up to 6 rounds of POMB/ACE chemotherapy which was devastatingly difficult. I couldn’t admit it then, but I can now.
It was the most brutal treatment I could imagine. My body didn’t feel like my own, I was living up in my mind, escorting my body to the oncology ward for 4 nights every fortnight.
Thank God it paid off for me. It doesn’t for everyone, I think of those gorgeous souls every single day.
The last aspect of my treatment was surgery to remove the 18cm and 11cm long tumours. I managed to keep a smidge of one ovary, but who knows if I will ever be fertile. For the moment, I am sweatily menopausal. Absurdly, I also cannot feel my hands or feet due to chemo induced nerve damage. I accidentally walked out of the house the other day with only one shoe on, unable to feel the difference.
This is the bizarre life cancer gifts you.
If you take anything away from reading this, please do not ignore persistent discomfort in your body.
Even if it is only a little uncomfortable, in those rare worst-case scenarios it could metastasize into something much worse.
Image: Chloé Etheridge.