“It’s like you’re 20 weeks along,” he remarked casually. He was right; my belly was distended as though I was carrying a child instead of the 19-centimeter cyst protruding out of my left ovary.
Looking down at my swollen stomach, a sense of disbelief overwhelmed me. How did I let it get this far? Hadn’t I noticed this thing that was growing inside me? How could I have let it go undetected for so long?
The answer to all of these questions was simple: I ignored the signs that my body was telling me. Not because I didn’t care, but because I didn’t know better—and because I was too afraid to speak up.
Ignoring the warning signs
My first inkling that something was off with my health came six months earlier. I noticed had to pee more often than usual, and doing so was sometimes painful. When I told my primary care doctor about it, she had me checked for a urinary tract infection. The test came out negative, and she sent me on my way.
In the months that followed, my symptoms persisted, with bloating and fatigue added to the mix. I chalked it up to stress; after all, I was a graduate student kept busy with an endless queue of assignments and deadlines. But beyond that, I wanted to believe everyday stress—something that I felt I could manage without medical intervention—was the culprit because I found it really difficult to talk to a doctor about what I was feeling. I grew up in a South Asian household, where women generally don’t openly talk about their health, particularly female-specific conditions. It’s largely considered improper, graceless, and sometimes shocking for women to speak about their menstrual cycles, sex lives, or even their pregnancies. In my case, this culture of silence also meant that I grew up learning very little about how my reproductive system was supposed to work—and so I had no way to put my questions or concerns into words.
Which is why, like many other women, I tried for many months to ignore my discomfort, hoping that things would get better on their own.
In my culture, it’s largely considered improper, graceless, and sometimes shocking for women to speak about their menstrual cycles, sex lives, or even their pregnancies.
But, come the end of the semester and the busy month of Ramadan in early July, I no longer had an excuse to continue powering through this persistent uneasiness. I went to the doctor for an ultrasound. The images revealed a large mass on my ovary. I was completely stunned. Was it cancerous? Could I lose my ovary? Both were possibilities, my doctor told me. Nothing else could be confirmed until I met with a specialist.
I never had a chance to make a follow-up appointment. A week later, I woke up with severe abdominal pain, to the point where I was crouched on all fours. I was rushed to the emergency room, but the ER doctors decided that since my cyst wasn’t critical (it hadn’t yet cut off blood flow to my ovary), I could wait a few days for an operation. This despite the fact that I was in so much pain I could barely sit upright. It felt like now that I was taking my condition seriously, no one else was willing to.
I spent the next couple of days at home, sedated on heavy narcotics and feeling helpless, until I was admitted into a reputable cancer hospital thanks to a referral from a family relative. After my surgeon saw the severe amount of pain that I was in, he decided to operate right away.
He said the cyst, which he confirmed was benign, might have been growing slowly for over a year, and then quickly advanced about a month before I ended up in the ER. (This can be common with ovarian cysts, which often go for long periods without causing symptoms.) It had gotten so big that it damaged my ovary, meaning that my surgeon had to completely remove my left ovary and fallopian tube along with the cyst itself.
Ending my silence
Despite the success of the surgery and my gratitude for hitting all the best-case scenario beats (I would still be able to have children if I wanted them, and I didn’t have cancer), I had a sunken feeling of regret, and replayed a version in my head where I caught the cyst sooner. My surgeon told me that there was no way of knowing the severity of my situation, and that I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.
While that might be true, it’s also true that, as women, we sometimes doubt ourselves and put off addressing potentially life-threatening symptoms because of work or family commitments. That’s certainly what I did. And because of my own ignorance about my body, I didn’t know how to interpret my pain and discomfort as anything more than an annoyance. As I began to heal after my surgery, I knew I wanted to share my newfound knowledge; I wanted to use my experience to help other women—women who might feel alone or afraid or confused—find relief.
My mom, however, discouraged me from telling people about my oophorectomy. People won’t understand, she told me. They’ll think you can’t have kids. In a culture that concerns itself with upholding reputation and the opinions of others, she wanted to avoid a false rumor about my fertility. Although she meant well, I was tired of feeling embarrassed about my body and what happened to me. So I ignored my ingrained instincts and spoke to other family members, friends, and classmates about my ordeal.
As I began to heal after my surgery, I knew I wanted to share my newfound knowledge; I wanted to use my experience to help other women—women who might feel alone or afraid or confused—find relief.
Surprisingly, speaking up about what happened became a key part of my recovery. As support poured in, I was amazed by how many of the women in my life had their own stories about pain and trauma caused by overlooked health conditions. Many shared tales that mirrored mine about fibroids and endometriosis, cysts that ruptured, that grew and then disappeared, that needed to be monitored at every doctor’s visit. And they also had memories of feeling neglected, of their physical pain not being treated with the urgency it deserved by both themselves and medical professionals.
These stories had previously been told in whispers behind closed doors, but now they were out in the open. Knowing others had been through this made me feel less alone, and I hope that my story can help other women find the confidence to listen to their bodies, trust their instincts about how they’re feeling, and be better advocates for their own health.
The scar from my operation runs vertically from right above my belly button down to my pelvis—a pink, curved line that is starting to fade. Sometimes, I trace my fingers along the raised skin, reminding myself how much I’ve learned from this experience, and how grateful I am because of it.
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