When Amy first noticed changes to her menstrual cycle – irregular bleeding, bloating, cramps in her back and belly – she assumed they were side effects of the pill.
“I ignored my symptoms for almost a year,” she tells Women’s Health. “I didn’t consistently take the pill (I would miss a day here and there) and the abdominal/back pain was just like bad period pain – except the timing didn’t coincide with my period.”
It wasn’t until two months later when the pain failed to subside, that she considered it suspicious enough to take a trip to the GP. That’s when she was told about the 9cm mass on her ovary.
“I was in shock, [but my] gynaecologist reassured me that it was not unusual for cysts to form into larger cysts, so it was probably nothing to worry about,” she explains.
Once her ovary was removed, pathology identified that the cyst was, in fact, a borderline ovarian tumour. Her initial response was relief.
“Yes, I’d lost an ovary, but at least I didn’t have cancer! And when my remaining ovary developed a 6cm cyst less than a year later, I thought it would be another borderline tumour.”
This time though, she wasn’t so lucky.
“I received the phone call from my oncologist while I was at home. I confirmed, several times, that he was telling me that I had cancer and that the pathologist hadn't made a mistake,” she recalls. “After I hung up the phone, I just sat on my bed, hugging my knees and rocking back and forth. I wanted to scream, to let out the desperate feeling of fear and anguish that seemed to be building up in my chest, but I just cried.”
Amy confided in her sister but waited over a month to share her diagnosis with the rest of her family: “I felt like such a failure that, at 30 years old, I had cancer.”
As Amy was young and wanted children in the future, her treating team took a conservative approach in regards to her surgeries: they only removed what was absolutely necessary to preserve her fertility as best they could.
“After the last surgery to remove my remaining ovary, I decided along with my treating team not to have a hysterectomy due to the early stage of the disease.” She would, however, undergo six cycles of chemotherapy and require ongoing medication to reduce the oestrogen produced by her body. The treatment wreaked havoc on her body.
“My chemotherapy regimen included a weekly treatment for three weeks, followed by one week off, for six cycles,” she recalls. “The chemotherapy side-effects that were most frustrating included pins-and-needles in my hands and face (peripheral neuropathy), hair loss, appetite loss, and a rather unfortunate dermatitis on my face and scalp."
Miraculously, she managed to continue full-time university study during this time: “I saw it as my little triumph in not letting this disease impact my life any more than was absolutely necessary!”
The surgeries and treatment were success and today, two years later, Amy’s cancer-free. But mentally, the whole journey has really taken a toll.
“The psychological stress of recurrence, which really came to the fore the day of my last chemotherapy treatment, has been the most difficult challenge. Because I experience abdominal and leg pain as a result of my surgeries, I am constantly reminded of my cancer diagnosis.”
“My relationship also ended six months after I finished chemotherapy, so the challenge of dating post-ovarian cancer diagnosis and treatment has definitely made for some interesting conversations.”
It’s also made it that much harder for Amy to naturally conceive – a factor time has helped her come to terms with.
“I have accepted that having children will look different to how I originally planned,” she explains. “I completed two cycles of IVF after my first ovary was removed, but both cycles were unsuccessful. I will need to find an egg donor and use IVF if I am to attempt to carry my own child, but I am okay with this as it is no longer important for me to have a child that shares my genetics.”
Along with her mindset, she’s totally transformed her relationship with her body.
“I have always been an active person. Prior to my diagnosis, I consistently went to the gym, rode to work, did Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and went on weekend hikes. But I am probably more driven to push my body further since my diagnosis, to learn about its limits.” She adds: “Last year I even attempted the 96km Gold Coast Kokoda Challenge - something I would not have considered prior to the cancer.”
“I have also worked to live more in the present. I used to have the mentality that I would be happy once I had a house, and kids, and a successful business. But now I have learnt that all I really have is the present, and I can decide to be happy now. And that is what I do on a daily basis.”
Her advice for others? Be diligent with staying on top of your health.
“Ovarian cancer is typically diagnosed at an advanced stage when it is more difficult to treat and the survival rate is poorer,” she says. “This is complicated by the fact that the symptoms can easily be explained away as something else. So, take time to listen to your body and to note when things change. Go to your doctor if you notice anything new or different, no matter how minor. It is so much better to have a chat and it not be anything, then to avoid it and it ends up being something!”
February is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. To find out more, visit Ovarian Cancer Australia.