‘I Just Thought I Was Getting Fat:’ Woman, 26, Dismissed ‘Bloating’ As Due To Her College Lifestyle: It Was Cancer

Published May 16, 2022

Sydney Schaefer

Understanding Ovarian Cancer

  • A young journalism student was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 26, and now, she’s telling her story so other women are aware of the disease’s warning signs she overlooked.
  • Ovarian cancer has often been called the “cancer that whispers” since women often don’t experience symptoms until the disease has reached its later stage.
  • Many ovarian cancers actually begin in the fallopian tubes. A few cancerous cells first grow on the fallopian tubes and then, as the fallopian tubes brush over the ovary, these cells stick to the ovaries and eventually grow to form a tumor.

A young journalism student was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 26, and now, she’s telling her story so other women are aware of the disease’s warning signs she overlooked.

For months, Emma Fitzgerald, from Melbourne, Australia, was experiencing bloating, fatigue, irregular periods and nausea. She blamed everything on her body’s adjustment to her busy college lifestyle.

However, in July 2020, her symptoms and pain became agonizing, so she finally decided that it was time to visit her doctor.

“Looking back there were a lot of signs I didn’t take seriously that I now know are symptoms,” Emma, now 28, tells 7Life.com.au.

“When my stomach became incredibly bloated, I just thought I was getting fat,” she added. “I exercised relentlessly for quite a while and I was so frustrated my stomach was getting larger.”

But she wasn’t “getting fat.” Emma’s doctor explained that she had borderline tumors on her ovaries.

Emma Fitzgerald in the hospital. Photo via 7News

Borderline ovarian tumors, often referred to as “low malignant potential” tumors, aren’t invasive but they also aren’t completely benign, according to UChicago Medicine, which is why Emma’s doctor explained that these tumors are like having a “halfway cancer.”

There was a 13 centimeter tumor growing on her right ovary, a smaller one of her left ovary, as well as several other smaller growths in her abdomen. Thankfully she was paying attention to her body and sought medical attention.

In August 2020, Emma underwent a laparotomy (a surgical procedure involving a surgical incision through the abdominal wall to gain access into the abdominal cavity) in order to have the larger two tumors removed, along with her left ovary, fallopian tube, omentum and appendix.

Emma Fitzgerald in the hospital. Photo via 7News

Her surgery was a success, but Emma still needs to monitor her body regularly to ensure the “abnormal cysts” in her pelvis “do not turn sinister.”

The procedure also left her “medically infertile,” decreasing the likelihood of her being able to have children naturally one day, but in April of last year, she was able to freeze seven eggs from her remaining right ovary for when she’s ready to have children.

Understanding Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer has often been called the “cancer that whispers” since women often don’t experience symptoms until the disease has reached its later stage.

The term ovarian cancer refers to a number of different tumors that grow in the ovary. The ovaries produce the sex hormone, estrogen, as well as eggs. Every woman has two ovaries, one on either side of her uterus. The fallopian tube picks up the egg from the ovary and carries it to the uterus for fertilization.

Many ovarian cancers actually begin in the fallopian tubes. A few cancerous cells first grow on the fallopian tubes and then, as the fallopian tubes brush over the ovary, these cells stick to the ovaries and eventually grow to form a tumor.

Dr. Monica Vetter, a gynecological oncologist at Baptist Health Medical Group in Lexington, Ky., previously told SurvivorNet that most ovarian cancer cases are caught in stage 3 or stage 4, as it’s a difficult cancer for which to screen. And about 70% to 80% of those women are going to have their cancer come back within the first five years.

Genetic Testing Can Offer Valuable Information About Ovarian Cancer Risk

However, despite these daunting statistics, genetic testing for ovarian cancer can lead to life-saving actions and screening tests for early detection.

And when it comes to ovarian cancer, which is curable in more than 90% of cases when diagnosed early enough, genetic testing can be a valuable option.

Learn more about SurvivorNet's rigorous medical review process.