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June 11, 2007

They Told me I was Pregnant, But it was Ovarian Cancer

You’re bloated. You need to pee all the time. It could be pregnancy—or it could be ovarian cancer, the so-called silent killer. But new research shows you can spot this cancer early. These two survivors reveal how pushing for a diagnosis can save your life.

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NYRVAH, 34, art-gallery owner
I’ve always been into eating right and exercising, so I was surprised when I developed a little potbelly. I also started getting the urge to urinate so often that I began to feel that if I was going to drink something, I’d be smart to do it in the bathroom. But I didn’t think it was anything serious until my abdomen—slightly to the left of my belly button—really ballooned within a month. It was like I was four-months pregnant. At the same time, I developed intense abdominal pain—like bad menstrual cramps—and I felt exhausted. I got my period and passed large blood clots, which scared me. My partner and I wondered if I was pregnant and something was wrong with the baby.

A pregnancy test at the clinic turned out positive, and I started to get excited that maybe the baby could hold on. But five minutes after the gynecologist did an exam, her face dropped: My uterus was big enough for a 20-week pregnancy, she said, but I’d had a period the previous month. She sent me right to a hospital, which performed ultrasounds that showed no baby. A week of sonograms, CAT scans, MRIs, and exams brought no diagnosis. Even so, I figured it was fibroids, which run in my family, so I wasn’t too worried—except about how I’d pay for all this, since I didn’t have insurance.

The hospital thought I had an unviable pregnancy, gave me a drug to expel the fetus, and sent me home. The medicine caused unbelievable cramping and bleeding, which hadn’t yet subsided several days later. I contacted numerous doctors, but without insurance, none would see me. So my partner and I took a 10-hour train ride to Canada, where emergency care is free. I was still bleeding, and to make myself look even worse, I ran up and down stairs to get my temperature up. Then I called an ambulance from a friend’s house in Montreal. Two days later, a doctor reading a new sonogram found a melon-size tumor on my left ovary.

I was shocked—and later, angry— that all the doctors I’d seen during the previous month had gambled with my life by missing this. But I’ve learned that because ovarian cancer often doesn’t strike women under 60, most doctors just don’t think it’s a possibility. Plus, everyone I’d seen was looking for a pregnancy and may not have considered a tumor.

My cancer was advanced—stage IIIC—but luckily, it was a type called dysgerminoma, which responds well to chemo and has a higher cure rate than the more typical epithelial cancer (often very invasive). It produces the same hormones that pregnancy does, which is why everyone thought I was pregnant.

Even though I had cancer, I kept focusing on the fact that my prospects were so good: I was told that if I didn’t have a recurrence within two years, the cancer would probably never come back. I had surgery to remove the tumor and the affected lymph nodes, plus four months of grueling chemo. Fortunately, the weight of it being cancer didn’t really strike me until later, and by then, I was in remission. I may not be able to have children, but I don’t feel sorry for myself. Now, I’m trying to help other women recognize the disease and push for a diagnosis.

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