A 21-year-old woman who struggled with years of excruciating stomach pain dismissed as ‘constipation and bloating’ later discovered she was actually suffering from incurable ovarian cancer.
Rebecca Schweikert, from Perth, Western Australia, was given the devastating news she may only have less than two years left to live after being diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer at the age of 20 in June 2020.
The cheerleader went from a ‘happy, normal 20-year-old girl still trying to find her place in the world’ to being told she’ll never be able to have kids – and facing the heartbreaking likelihood of going through early menopause before her mum.
For three years, she experienced digestive issues, abdominal pain, severe bloating and ‘random’ vomiting but she was repeatedly misdiagnosed by doctors.
‘I saw multiple doctors who all told me that I was just “constipated”. They would prescribe me every laxative available but nothing worked, so I would just put up with the pain,’ Rebecca told Daily Mail Australia.
Rebecca Schweikert who struggled with years of excruciating pain after her symptoms were dismissed as constipation discovered she was actually suffering from ovarian cancer (pictured left before her diagnosis and right after losing all her hair)
She was given devastating news she’ll never be able to have kids after being diagnosed with stage 3 low-grade ovarian cancer at the age of 20 in June 2020 (pictured in October 2020)
Ovarian cancer symptoms
There are often no obvious signs of ovarian cancer, but they include:
- abdominal bloating
- difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- frequent or urgent urination
- back, abdominal or pelvic pain
- constipation or diarrhoea
- menstrual irregularities
- pain during intercourse
- unexplained weight loss or weight gain
At first she assumed the symptom was ‘normal’ for those suffering constipation – and she simply put it down to her not drinking enough water and her ‘not-so clean’ diet.
But she knew something wasn’t right after when her weight dropped by 30 kilos in five months in early 2020 – and her friends and family were concerned she was suffering an eating disorder.
‘I started losing quite a substantial amount of weight. I was getting compliments on my figure and was constantly asked “how did you do it?” – but I struggled to give them an answer as I wasn’t doing anything at all to cause the weight loss,’ she said.
‘It got to the point where I was losing too much too quickly. I went from 79kg to 44kg in just a few months. People became worried.’
She started experiencing a ‘severe, sharp, stabbing pain’ on the left side of her abdomen on day so she met with a new doctor to see what was happening.
‘She was going to rule me off as constipation again until I mentioned weight loss. She sent me for an urgent CT scan and advised me she would call me back if it was anything serious,’ Rebecca said.
She spent the following month in hospital (pictured in hospital shortly after her diagnosis) after she underwent a major surgery to have ‘as much of the cancer removed’ from her body
She went from a ‘happy, normal 20-year-old girl still trying to find her place in the world’ to facing a life-threatening illness after being told she may only have two years left to live
To cope with her battle, Rebecca has kept herself busy by volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation and playing with makeup because it ‘gives me a creative outlet’
What is ovarian cancer?
Ovarian cancer is a malignant tumour in one or both ovaries.
The three most common types of ovarian cancer are: epithelial type (90% of cases) that arises from the cells on the outside of the ovary; the germ cell type (around 4% of cases) that arises from the cells which produce eggs; and the rare stromal type arising from supporting tissues within the ovary.
The cancer is given a grade based on how the cancer cells look compared to normal cells under a microscope. This suggests how quickly the cancer may grow.
Grade 1 (or low grade) ovarian cancer is likely to grow relatively slowly. Grade 2 (moderate grade) might grow more quickly. Grade 3 (high grade) is likely to grow quickly.
The risk of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer before age 85 is one in 85. The average age of women when they are diagnosed with ovarian cancer is age 64.
A couple of hours later, she received an urgent phone call from the doctor asking her to return to the office the same day.
‘I didn’t think much of it, I honestly thought she was just going to tell me I was severely constipated as I had been having problems for so long,’ she said.
But the scan led to something much more sinister after an eight centimetre mass was found on her left ovary.
‘I didn’t even think there could have been a problem with my ovaries as I always had regular periods and had no issues at all,’ she explained.
However, her world came crashing down when the doctor suspected it to be cancer.
‘As soon as she mentioned “cancer” it took me a minute to process what she had said. I was in total shock and it was definitely like a scene out of a movie,’ she said.
‘The doctor handed me the box of tissues and I just started bursting out crying, I felt like I had been hit by a train. I was by myself and after the appointment I walked to reception with tears running down my face.
‘I remember sitting in my car with a million things running through my mind.’
After a biopsy, she was diagnosed with stage 3 low grade ovarian cancer – a grade suggesting the cancer is likely to ‘grow relatively slowly’.
‘The cancer had spread to my liver, spleen and bowel and I was lucky that it hadn’t yet spread to my lungs as this would make my diagnosis stage 4,’ Rebecca said.
‘But unfortunately, I am incurable. I never would have thought in a million years I would be going through this and it just goes to show that cancer doesn’t discriminate and no one is untouchable.’
After consulting a fertility doctor, she was told none of her eggs were ‘salvageable’ and IVF wasn’t an option because of the ‘severity of the cancer’
‘The advice I would give to other young girls going through cancer is to keep fighting, don’t let it destroy your spirit and to never forget that although you may not have a full head of hair, eyelashes, or eyebrows you are still so beautiful,’ Rebecca said
The cheerleader went from a ‘happy, normal 20-year-old girl still trying to find her place in the world’ to being told she’ll never be able to have kids
She spent the following month in hospital after she underwent a major surgery to have ‘as much of the cancer removed’ from her body as possible.
Dealing with the news of having cancer was already traumatic enough… but to then be told that I wouldn’t be able to have children definitely felt like a punch in the face
‘When the doctors went to operate on me, the mass on my ovary had doubled in size and they couldn’t tell what organ was what due to the severity of the cancer. I lost 3.5L of blood and needed three blood transfusions to replace what I’d lost,’ she said.
And things took a turn for the worse when she was told she won’t be able to have kids of her own after undergoing a a hysterectomy.
‘Dealing with the news of having cancer was already traumatic enough, but to then be told that I would be undergoing a full hysterectomy and that I wouldn’t be able to have children definitely felt like a punch in the face,’ Rebecca explained.
‘The opportunity to have children was taken away from me before I could even think about having children.’
Things took a turn for the worse when she was told she won’t be able to have kids of her own after undergoing a a hysterectomy
Rebecca was a competitive cheerleader – but she has since been able to return to the stage since her cancer diagnosis
After consulting a fertility doctor, she was told none of her eggs were ‘salvageable’ and IVF wasn’t an option because of the ‘severity of the cancer’.
‘My only real option to have children is either having a donor egg and surrogate or adoption. This absolutely broke my heart and became a huge obstacle that I didn’t even expect to have to go through especially at the age of 20,’ Rebecca said.
‘While dealing with the news of not being able to have children, I also had to deal with the news that I would go through early menopause due to the hysterectomy.
‘To find out I would be going through menopause before my mum was definitely a strange concept to grasp.’
Following her last round of chemotherapy, Rebecca said doctors found a tumour in her pancreas, which is ‘dangerously close’ to a main blood supply.
‘So surgery is far too risky and it won’t ever be an option,’ she said.
After her last round of chemotherapy, she was given a prognosis of just eight to 24 months
After her last round of chemotherapy, she was given a glimmer of hope after the tumour shrunk ‘a little bit’.
But Rebecca said she was recently given a prognosis of just eight to 24 months.
‘To this day it all still feels surreal,’ she said.
I just see the cancer as just a bump in the road and I will come out the other side a stronger person
‘When given my prognosis I wasn’t worried, because I have a strong gut feeling that this is not how my life will turn out. I see myself living a long, happy life and I refuse to accept the fact that I may only have two years left to live, so I won’t.
‘I live day to day, I take advantage of the good days and I rest during the bad days but the news did not destroy my spirit to keep fighting. I’m not just fighting for myself, I’m fighting for my parents, my younger brother and my partner.
‘I’m going to live to see my younger brother grow up and I’m going to live to see my wedding day. I just see the cancer as just a bump in the road and I will come out the other side a stronger person.’
Losing all her long, luscious hair was one of the biggest challenges she faced – but she has since learned to embrace her new look
She hopes by sharing her story, young women could draw hope from her experience
Losing all her long, luscious hair was one of the biggest challenges she faced.
‘My hair was a big part of my identity and I had felt like I’d lost my identity for a while after I lost it and it took me a while to get used to being bald,’ she said.
‘My other challenges include finding a sense of purpose again and having a sense of loneliness. Although I am surrounded by so much love and support, I still feel lonely sometimes because I’m going through this obstacle.
‘And being told I couldn’t be a cheerleader anymore was a huge hurdle that I had to face as cheer and performing meant the world to me and the friendships I made at my gym were invaluable.’
To cope with her battle, Rebecca has kept herself busy by volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation and playing with makeup because it ‘gives me a creative outlet’.
‘To help me get through everything, I use humour as my main coping mechanism and I like to say “if you don’t laugh you’ll cry”. I’ve always been a humorous person and I’m not going to let cancer change that,’ she said.
By sharing her story, Rebecca – who has since learned to embrace her new look – hopes young women could draw hope from her experiences.
‘I hope my story encourages other people to love themselves no matter how they look and to realise that who they are on the inside is what matters the most and being bald is beautiful,’ she said.
‘The advice I would give to other young girls going through cancer is to keep fighting, don’t let it destroy your spirit and to never forget that although you may not have a full head of hair, eyelashes, or eyebrows, you are still so beautiful.’