My name is Ellie Cohen and I beat cancer.
I had been at university for half a year when I started to think there might be something wrong with me. I went to the doctor and explained that I had had several kidney infections over the past few months and although they were easily treated with antibiotics, they kept coming back. I was also getting tired all the time. Too tired to ride my bike home from lectures, and I’d end up falling asleep when I returned home in the early afternoon.
The doctor examined me and told me I had a “lump”. “Probably an ovarian cyst” she said, and she referred me to a gynaecologist. The gynaecologist examined me and sent me for two ultrasounds and a blood test for ovarian cancer. The test came out normal but the scans were inconclusive, so I was booked in for an MRI. A couple of days afterwards I got a phone call asking me to come in to the hospital for some extra blood tests.
My mum travelled to my university to come to the consultation after the MRI. It was a beautiful warm spring day. We sat down in the gynaecologist’s office and the first thing she said to us was “I’m afraid it isn’t good news.”
The scans showed that I had a large mass on my right ovary. They also showed enlarged lymph nodes and some fluid built up around the mass. This, along with the extra blood tests, suggested that I had cancer. I broke down in the doctor’s office.
My mum phoned my dad, I phoned my girlfriend, and also rang my best friend who happened to be coming to stay with me at uni that evening. The first people I told in person were my housemates. One came to my room to show me a bubble wand he’d just bought. He said “I have bubbles!”, I said “I have cancer. But screw that, let’s go play with bubbles!”
In the weeks following I had a CT scan, further blood tests and a biopsy on my tumour to rule out the possibility that I had Lymphoma. I moved back to London to live with my parents. I had considered trying to continue with my studies and finish the year, but it became clear that was not a possibility because of the intensive chemotherapy I was going to need to fight this thing. The chemo was going to make my hair fall out, and I decided to hold a fundraiser where I got my hair cut into a mohawk, for Cancer Research UK. (this fundraiser ended up raising a grand total of £3000!).
I had my first consultation at the Royal Marsden hospital. The professor explained that I had dysgerminoma, a rare germ cell tumour of the ovary. (this was why the first blood test for normal ovarian cancer hadn’t worked) It was stage IV, meaning that it had already spread to another part of my body – in my case, lymph nodes in my neck and abdomen. I had a tumour the size of a brick on my right ovary and another, smaller, tumour on my left ovary. My Ca-125 level (a marker in my blood) was at 900, when a normal level is lower than 35.
The day after my consultation, we got a phone call from the hospital telling us to come down ASAP. I packed bags and drove across London on the back of my dad’s motorbike. I was put on a ward for lung, gynae and breast cancers, where most of the patients were over the age of 50. The nurses on this ward were fantastic and really helped me to get through the rough time I had in hospital. I saw so many different doctors, nurses and social workers in the first couple of days that I lost count. There was a second CT scan and a canula inserted into a vein in my arm that I would receive my first round of chemo through. I was going to have BEP chemotherapy (Bleomycin, Etoposide, cisPlatin), and because the drugs were very harmful to the kidneys I had to have 6 litres of water daily through my IV, plus antihistamine, diuretics and anti-sickness drugs.
It was a lot of drugs and each round of chemo I would have to come into hospital for 5 days to have drugs pumped into me 24/7, and come in for 2 outpatient doses as well. A round of chemo lasted 3 weeks, and the time I spent out of hospital was largely spent recovering. The chemotherapy reduced my blood counts making me weak and prone to infections. I was often taking 12 pills a day and occasionally over 20, and I had to have a lot of injections as well, which I was taught to give myself. I was also given an injection to put my ovaries to sleep, so my periods stopped and I started to get menopausal hot flushes. I ached all over, I had ringing in my ears, changes to my senses of taste and smell, mouth ulcers and my hair started falling out after the 1st cycle. For a while I wore scarves and hats when going out because I was worried about people staring at my bald head. Scarves get annoying after a while so now I mainly rejected the scarf in favour of rocking the bald look.
I had a total of 4 rounds of chemotherapy, which brought my tumour markers down to a normal level. The tumours shrunk to a fraction of the original size. After I finished chemo, I rested for a couple of months and then had a midline laparotomy (major surgery on my abdomen to remove tumours/scar tissue for analysis). I restarted my course at Uni shortly after, and then had a second surgery to remove some lymph nodes from my neck right after my january exams. Pathology from both surgeries showed no sign of cancer and I am now 100% cancer free as far as anyone can tell! My consultant has always been confident that a complete cure is possible, and I may even be able to have biological children in the future.
I couldn’t have fought this without the incredible support I have had from my family and my friends. My mum, her work colleagues and several of my friends ran the Race for Life for me. I have had days where I’ve cried and I have been angry and frustrated. I’ve been scared and I’ve seen my friends and my parents being afraid for me. However, I think that there are always options. The option to be miserable about everything and the option to stay cheerful no matter what life chucks at you, and the second option sounds to me like the better deal by far.
*Since I wrote this back in July I have had the surgery. It went fantastically well, and I got the news that the pathology revealed everything they found was dead! I’ve been given the green light to go back to uni and I’m very much on the mend. The mohawk event has raised £3000 for Cancer Research so far.
**When I had the surgery, it turned out the large tumour was on my right ovary (the one that was removed). It had collapsed and fallen onto the left side.
Further update: Still in remission in 2012, had 6 lymph nodes removed from my neck on 06/02/12, and my most recent tests were all clear!