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June 11, 2007

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

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SERENA, 27, nursing student
In the middle of my senior year of college, I began to feel tired all the time. My strength was so zapped that I had to quit my beloved crew team— I just couldn’t keep up. I also became constipated. I went to several team and school doctors, most of whom initially thought I was pregnant (I wasn’t), or prescribed laxatives, which didn’t help much. A few months later, my waistline began expanding. I’d always been fit and thin, so it upset me that my clothes didn’t fit. I went to more doctors—six during the year—but none gave me a diagnosis other than constipation. I didn’t think the problem was serious, but I was completely frustrated that doctors couldn’t find the cause of my fatigue and bloating.

After graduation, despite my fatigue and four-inch-thicker abdomen, I pushed myself to accompany friends to a Wyoming ranch for the summer. Within a few weeks, I felt like I had to urinate constantly; I’d get up numerous times at night to use the bathroom, and I’d still feel the urge when I got back to bed. One late- June morning, it became painful to swallow. I went to another doctor, who diagnosed mononucleosis. Yet I knew something else was wrong. I was so frustrated that I told him I wasn’t leaving until he figured it out. He was the first to do a pelvic exam, during which he thought my uterus was enlarged. He sent me for a sonogram: It revealed an ovarian tumor the size of a cantaloupe. The doctor told me most tumors are benign, so I didn’t think the worst—I was just pissed off that this was ruining my summer fun. On top of it all, I really did have mono.

I went home and got another ultrasound. This time, the radiologist thought I had a stage I, grade I tumor. I can’t remember anything between the pronouncement that I might have cancer and my surgery five days later, except that I was completely stunned.

The surgeon said he would try to preserve my fertility but that I might need a full hysterectomy, and that he would only know once he performed the surgery. It terrified me that I might never have children, but I knew it was important to remove the tumor. Thankfully, the fact that I could have died from the cancer didn’t cross my mind.

The type of cancer I had—stage I germ-cell immature teratoma—doesn’t spread as quickly as the more common epithelial cancer, so he just removed my right ovary. I expected to need chemo and radiation, but the cancer hadn’t spread , so I was spared that. I was lucky, but I was also determined. Not taking “we don’t know” for an answer got me a diagnosis that was crucial to my beating the disease.

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