Starting in July 2011, I started experiencing strange health issues mainly stemming from an eye disease that causes blindness, which is typically a result of an autoimmune disease. This led to getting poked and prodded over my whole body, blood and urine labs done weekly, full-body scans (MRIs, CAT scans, PET scans), and even getting examined by the best doctors in Pennsylvania to determine what was going on inside my body. When I had finally accepted I had an autoimmune disease that I would have to live with for the rest of my life, a new concern arose, quite literally.
On Christmas Eve night in 2011, I noticed a lump near my right pelvic bone. I went to my older sisters and asked them about it. At the age of 16, my body was still changing so I wasn’t sure if it was normal. My sisters confirmed that it was normal and told me to go back to bed. A couple of days later I was prom dress shopping with my best friend and asked her about it; she also said it was normal. Another few weeks later I went to see my family care doctor for my 17th birthday check-up and I told him about my lump. Again, I was told it was normal and that I always had a lump there.
In February 2012, I went to my Pediatric Rheumatologist for the autoimmune disease. She felt the lump during that visit and asked about it. We told her my family doctor knew about it and said it was fine. I was ordered to do a 24-hour urine test for that doctor visit but I pushed it off until the upcoming three-day weekend from school. My test result came back negative for the diseases they were testing for, but they found blood in my urine and I was scheduled for an ultrasound to see if I had kidney stones the following week. The mysterious lump was finally detected as a mass that was blocking the image of my right kidney during that ultrasound appointment. I was admitted to the hospital the next night.
I still remember my parents standing in the kitchen when my twin brother and I got home from a junk-food haul for movie night. They told me that I had to go to the hospital, but I didn’t want to go. I wanted to spend the weekend home and go in on Monday. But, my mom packed my bag as I just sat there in my room confused and unsure of what was happening. At that time, all I knew was that I had blood in my urine, and there was a mass that wasn’t supposed to be there. Cancer didn’t even cross my mind. I didn’t even know ovarian cancer was a thing at that time!
I spent the next 24 hours repeatedly getting asked if I was pregnant… which I was not! While I was admitted I had to do another MRI scan. During the scan I had the worst dream I have ever had. I dreamed that I had cancer and the wonderful staff stopped the scan, due to the fact all I wanted was my mom and my aunt. They rush me back to my room to be with my family. I couldn’t shake what I saw; the nurses ran into my room because I was sobbing. I told them what I saw. I couldn’t say the word and it was my first time I referred to cancer as the C-word. The room got quiet, the nurses left and got me a slushie (a perk of being on the pediatric floor). As the hours went by the feeling of cancer still lingered inside of me. Finally, I went into surgery 48-hours after I was admitted to removing the mystery grapefruit-size mass; my right ovary and fallopian tube were also removed during surgery. Two days later I found out that it had been cancerous and that I was free from ovarian cancer two weeks after my 17th birthday, on February 28, 2012. If I never had to do that 24-hour urine test my experience would have been much worse!
Since I found out I was cancer-free, all of the other health issues that I was experiencing went away with the removal of the tumor. My team of doctors, family, and I decided that I did not need to do the treatment at that time due to how early my tumor was caught and it was contained within itself. However, I was made aware if cancer comes back the results would be to do the treatment. Therefore, the road to recovery began, which included: genetic testing and six years of being carefully watched to make sure cancer didn’t come back. This caused me to miss most of my junior and senior year of high school. I was prescribed a very strong hormonal replacement to help preserve my left ovary to have a chance at having children one day, which resulted in what I refer to as medically induced menopause. Of course, I still have had many cancer scares along the way, all before I was 25 years old.
One thing I learned from this experience is once you have had cancer you are never truly in the clear from hearing that word. You will be always getting tested and the “C” word will always be brought up at doctor appointments. It’s a reminder to live every day to the fullest because you never know what tomorrow brings. I was lucky they caught mine at a very early stage. That is all thanks to my Rheumatologist for making me do a 24-hour urine test. From my experience, I understand why ovarian cancer is most often diagnosed at later stages.
Despite the new challenges that I now experience, without having cancer in my life I wouldn’t be the person I am today. It made me strong and more resilient in the challenges I face. I remind myself of the things I was able to achieve despite having cancer at the age of 17. I went to both of my proms, graduated high school ON TIME, became a flight attendant, and traveled the world. Last year, I achieved my bachelor’s degree in under 3 years. Cancer was a blessing and a pain in the butt, but this is my story and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Carissa is a world traveler that is part of the NOCC Delaware Valley Chapter. She enjoys running, experiencing new cultures, and spending time with family and friends. As of 2020, she has been in remission for 8 years.