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February 10, 2022

Doctors dismissed her symptoms for 3 years—then found a volleyball-sized tumor

Daily Briefing

    After doctors dismissed 24-year-old Hannah Catton's symptoms for almost three years, she collapsed from pain and went to the ED, where doctors soon discovered a cancerous tumor the size of a volleyball in one of her ovaries, Jonathan Edwards writes for the Washington Post.

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    Dismissed by doctors

    Beginning in 2018, Catton visited multiple doctors for multiple concerning symptoms, including frequent urinary tract infections, irregular periods, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and severe pain. However, her providers consistently brushed off her symptoms, telling her that she was young and healthy, and was probably just stressed out. One doctor told her the symptoms might improve if she lost weight.

    Amid her health struggles, Catton in February 2019 moved to Melbourne, Australia, over 10,000 miles away from her home in Kent, England. Soon after the move, her symptoms worsened, along with her pain. Just like she had in England, she sought the advice of doctors—but they also brushed her off at multiple appointments.

    Finally, in May 2021, when Catton visited a doctor for a severe UTI, she was referred to a gynecologist and a urologist, which she said at the time felt like "a massive, massive relief," as if someone was "finally listening to these symptoms and taking me seriously."

    At the appointment, Catton's gynecologist performed an ultrasound and diagnosed her with a uterine fibroid—a noncancerous mass that grows in the uterus, typically during childbearing years. Catton was placed on a waiting list to have the mass surgically removed, but the procedure kept getting postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

    A tumor the size of a volleyball

    Then, in October 2021, Catton collapsed in pain after going horseback riding. Although she tried to treat the pain with over-the-counter medication, the pain came back after just a few days and she decided to go to the ED.

    Initially, doctors believed Catton had an ectopic pregnancy—but scans quickly revealed that the growth inside her was ovarian cancer.

    After her symptoms had been continually dismissed for almost three years, Catton finally knew what was wrong with her body, Edwards writes.

    Two days after she received her diagnosis, doctors removed the cancerous tumor from one of her ovaries. According to Edwards, it weighed around four and a half pounds and was almost eight inches wide—roughly the size of a volleyball.

    Three days later, tests confirmed that the cancer had not spread to other parts of Catton's body. However, because the tumor had ruptured, doctors told her she needed to go through chemotherapy to "mop up" anything the cancer left behind, Edwards writes.

    According to Edwards, Catton started chemotherapy on Dec. 6 and began her fourth round on Monday—which will be her last round of chemotherapy if tests confirm she is in remission.

    'As a patient, we should feel comfortable and confident enough to advocate for ourselves'

    Even though ovarian cancer seems to "be done with Catton, she's not done with it," Edwards writes.

    Catton discovered that her case was not unique—many women have similar experiences before they are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Especially in its early stages, ovarian cancer has vague symptoms that make it difficult to detect, including bloating, constipation, frequent urination, back pain, and feeling full quickly when eating, according to the Mayo Clinic News Network.

    Catton said that she went back to inform her doctors that they got her diagnosis wrong and, in the process, made her feel voiceless, Edwards writes.  "I felt like they needed to know so that they could do better," she said.

    Fortunately, Catton said the doctors have been responsive to her criticisms and agreed to undergo ovarian cancer awareness training to help them identify symptoms in future patients.

    Catton said she thinks she may have been a better advocate for herself early on if she had heard from someone else with a similar experience, and she hopes her experience can help others.

    Although Catton knew early on that her symptoms weren't caused by stress, she said that she accepted her doctors' dismissals because she didn't "want to be a patient that wastes time."

    According to Bella Grossman, a clinical psychologist, "[w]omen may have a harder time pushing back and advocating for themselves." She added. "They feel like they need to be good patients, which means accepting what their doctors tell them. But by doing so, they're stripping themselves of a voice."

    However, Catton said she wants women—especially women who might have ovarian cancer—to find their voices, Edwards writes.

    "As a patient, we should feel comfortable and confident enough to advocate for ourselves," Catton said. "If I'd have seen a story like this a year ago, two years ago, maybe it would have made me be a bit more forceful in how I was approaching it with doctors and saying, 'No, listen to me.'" (Edwards, Washington Post, 2/9)

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