Ovarian cancer is more common than you might imagine. According to Cancer Research UK, 1 in 50 UK females will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in their lifetime. This type of cancer is more common in young women than other kinds, but it often goes undiagnosed as the symptoms aren’t necessarily obvious.
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Emma Schlamm’s story is a case in point. She was only 25 when she started to experience a pain in her side. This was the beginning of a long journey that saw Emma dismissed by doctors, only to discover she had cancer. This is the heartbreaking tale of her diagnosis and how she lives her life today.
Emma’s struggle to be taken seriously
This all started when Emma experienced an unusual pain in her left side, which she realised was different from menstrual cramps. She visited several doctors before one agreed to do a scan which consequently showed that she had a mass growing on her ovary. Medical staff didn’t think she needed to have it removed, but Emma explains to Today:
I pushed and pushed and pushed because I was getting worried.
I (didn't) love the idea of anything that was growing in my body that wasn’t supposed to be there.
She 'felt incredibly dismissed' but eventually her persistence paid off and she underwent surgery. However, there was a complication: the mass was attached to her ovary.
There was no way to remove just the mass. They had to take out the whole ovary. I was very upset about what the implications could be for fertility.
Emma’s cancer diagnosis
One year later, Emma visited a doctor for a checkup. What they found was heartbreaking:
They saw a tumor on the other ovary. It was a full-fledged low-grade serous (a type of membrane) ovarian cancer.
The cancer was stage 2 and had spread to her pelvis. Emma and her family were devastated. As Emma explains:
I’ve never heard my mom wail like that, the guttural kind of primal cry she let out.
After visiting several different centres to decide on the best treatment plan, Emma finally found a doctor with enough compassion to tell her: ‘This is what I’d tell you to do, if you were my daughter’.
Despite there being only a 15% chance of chemotherapy putting her into remission, Emma decided to do it. She froze her eggs, did 18 weeks of chemotherapy and underwent surgery to remove her remaining ovary. She started taking medication and experienced menopause at 25. Emma says, ‘A lot of my grief came from feeling like I lost my youth and vibrance and vitality’.
The meds also cause osteoporosis: last year, Emma's husband hugged her and she cracked a rib. She says she feels like she’s 100 in her body: ‘It’s confusing because I want to live. I’m 29 now and I want to feel 29’.
Spotting ovarian symptoms
Emma is now on the board of the STAAR Ovarian Cancer Foundation, and finds some comfort in helping others deal with their experiences. However, she dreads every scan she goes for:
That’s the hardest part of all this, living with the fear of recurrence because the numbers are just so defeating.
She urges young women to persist if they feel something is wrong. According to the NHS, some symptoms to look out for are:
- ‘a swollen tummy or feeling bloated
- pain or tenderness in your tummy or the area between the hips (pelvis)
- no appetite or feeling full quickly after eating
- an urgent need to pee or needing to pee more often’
You should also watch out for indigestion, constipation or diarrhoea as well as back pain and feeling tired all the time. If you are also losing weight without trying or bleeding from the vagina after menopause.
Cancer Research UK states that ‘around 8 in 10 (81.2%) women in England diagnosed with ovarian cancer aged 15-44 survive their disease for ten years or more’. If you are concerned about any symptoms you may be experiencing, go and see a doctor.
People: 25-Year-Old with Ovarian Cancer Reveals Symptoms Dismissed by Doctors
Today: Woman, 25, with ovarian cancer recalls symptoms that doctors dismissed: 'You’re fine'
NHS: Ovarian cancer
Cancer Research UK: Ovarian cancer statistics