Self Advocacy

by Ashley Dunbar

If you know me well, or ask any girl I’ve ever dated, you’ll know that I am the world’s biggest hypochondriac. Months ago, I watched a movie with Hilary Swank, who played a character that has ALS. A few days after watching it, I had a twitch in my hand and was convinced that I too, had the disease. There couldn’t possibly be ANY other explanation for my twitch……

Despite my 100% self-awareness of my absurd hypochondria, in recent months too many things just weren’t making sense with my body for me to not question them. Last winter, while spending some time in Washington, D.C., I fainted on ice and took quite a nasty spill. After spending what felt like three hundred hours in the emergency room, and being asked one million questions, the doctor told me that it was caused by blood loss, due to a month-long menstrual period I was experiencing. They suggested that I have an ultrasound done, but nothing out of the ordinary was found.

While nothing was found, it left me feeling constantly anxious that something was going on that shouldn’t be. When I moved home to Pittsburgh after my year in Baton Rouge, one of my first stops was to my OB/GYN. I expressed that I was having irregular periods, accompanied by frequent bouts of nausea, diarrhea, and extreme fatigue. (Cute, right?) There were days this summer where I physically couldn’t be up and about for longer than a few hours without feeling completely drained. This led to me feeling constantly irritable and frustrated, and at times, completely overwhelmed and helpless, which I now know was a very real depression.

My doctor didn’t seem too concerned about my symptoms. Those, accompanied by what I expressed as a frequent need to urinate, somehow led to me being told that I have…an anxious bladder, basically. Part of it made sense, the frequent urges to use the bathroom were more common when I was anxious or stressed about something, but I still wasn’t satisfied with this.

Five years ago, I was told that I have PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) and prescribed a medication called Metformin, that I would end up taking daily for the next five years. PCOS is exactly what the name says, many small cysts on a woman’s ovaries. Besides having frequent irregular periods and having to take daily medication, PCOS had no real impact on my life, until this past July. One evening while getting ready for bed, I had a nagging pain in my stomach, but, as always, chose to ignore it. Later that night, I woke with severe abdominal pain and was sure I was stabbed in my sleep. My go-to is usually trying to use the bathroom whenever something is wrong, so that’s what I did. That’s when I puked, everywhere, and immediately knew that something was wrong.

At the hospital, the ER nurse told me that I was suffering through a ruptured cyst, and that I was right to come when I did. After MANY long hours at the hospital, and various tests being done, I was sent home and instructed to see a specialist for a follow-up appointment. A week later, after more testing, I was informed that there was a large mass on one of my ovaries but my labs came back negative, so it wasn’t something that I should worry about. However, they still wanted to do surgery to remove it, and I was referred to a Gynecologic Oncologist.

Oncology? I’m definitely no doctor but I do know that oncology=cancer. But, they said I shouldn’t worry about it? WHO would hear that and NOT worry?! Please, I’d like to meet them. These were probably the most stressful few weeks of my life during this time. I had a million questions left unanswered, and had no idea how to navigate this situation. I scheduled to have the surgery, and was told that would be the big test for my diagnosis. During the surgery, the only thing that was removed was the mass, and I was told that it was successfully taken out, but two weeks after the surgery, I got “the call.”

All in less than one month, I was diagnosed with Stage 1 Ovarian Cancer, had my left ovary and fallopian tube removed, and started chemotherapy. It all happened so quickly that I had absolutely no time to digest the process or what was happening, but now that I’ve had time to, I’ve realized that I am extremely lucky. Not only is it rare for young women to have ovarian cancer, but it’s usually almost never caught at such an early stage. I’ve gotten a lot of questions recently about what I think people should do if they’re experiencing this symptom or that, and my best advice is to be your own advocate. You know your body better than anyone else, and it’s your responsibility to take care of it. If you think something isn’t right, then see a doctor and push until you get the answers you want!