A medical student, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at just 17, is now training to be a doctor and says her diagnosis has only made her ‘more determined.’
Elena Espinosa Cabrera, 20, from North Devon, was revising for her medical school entrance exams when she went to A&E with pain in her abdomen.
At the time, she thought it was just a muscle strain.
However, it was discovered that a 14cm cyst was wrapped around her right ovary.
Devastatingly, Elena was also told she had ovarian germ cell cancer.
The student first noticed the a pain in her right side in November 2020.
She tried to focus on her exam preparation but struggled to concentrate as the pain worsened. Eventually, she could no longer sit at her desk, so she phoned 111 and was immediately told to go to A&E.
‘The pain got really unbearable,’ she recalled. ‘I don’t normally like to complain, but I couldn’t handle it any more.
‘My mum left work and went with me to A&E. By the time I got there, I was in so much pain that I was throwing up outside.
‘I was admitted straight away but doctors couldn’t understand what was causing the agony.’
Appendicitis and kidney stones were ruled out, and Elena was booked in for an ultrasound the following week.
She sat her exam on the Monday and on the Tuesday had a scan and the cyst was identified.
‘They explained that the pain was being caused by the fact that the cyst was twisted around my fallopian tube,’ Elena explained.
‘It was also growing bigger and needed to be urgently removed.’
Three weeks later, Elena underwent a laparotomy to remove the cyst – which was then examined to determine if it was cancerous.
In the November of that year, the teenager was diagnosed with metastatic ovarian germ cell cancer.
Germ cell ovarian tumours begin in the ovarian cells that develop into eggs (germ cells). They are rare and usually affect girls and young women up to their early 30s.
Some of the most common symptoms of ovarian cancer include feeling bloated or having pain around the pelvis and stomach that is not linked to your period.
‘It was a huge shock because, when you’re young, you just think you’re invincible,’ Elena said.
‘You never expect to be told you have cancer. A month after my first procedure, I had my right ovary removed.’
However, in August 2021, she started to feel unwell again.
Elena had a persistent cough and experienced breathlessness to the point where she struggled to get out of bed.
Seeking advice from her GP, she had an X-ray and returned to the hospital.
‘I’d convinced myself I had Long Covid but it had got to the point where I couldn’t walk up the stairs without stopping every few steps, which isn’t normal for a young person,’ Elena noted.
The next day, the then 18-year-old had a biopsy and was told that the metastatic ovarian germ cell cancer had returned.
‘Hearing that, I was reassured,’ she said. ‘That may sound weird that I was grateful for that, but a second type of cancer less than a year later would have felt even more unlucky.’
Elena was transferred to the Western General Hospital and began emergency chemotherapy.
‘I had the treatment up until Christmas 2021,’ she explained.
‘I had my last session on Christmas Eve. I remember driving home for Christmas feeling really ill. I had extreme fatigue and spent a lot of time on the sofa. I was throwing up around five times a day.
‘I had five rounds of even more intense chemo until February then started immunotherapy. I have that every three weeks and travelling down from Edinburgh disrupts my life a bit. Three weeks seems to come around really quickly.
‘The immunotherapy gave me menopausal symptoms because of a hormone imbalance. I’ve not had a period in years. I lost my hair during the chemo but that is growing back.’
Elena returned to her studies in September 2022 – and was grateful for some normality again in her life.
‘I was really adamant that my life went back to normal as soon as possible because I just want to get stronger again,’ she added.
‘Now I have check-up scans every three months.’
The mass is currently inactive and is 2mm in size.
Now studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh, Elena has noted a unique perspective on her future career because of her diagnosis.
‘I found the hospital environment really interesting, although I was witnessing it from the wrong viewing point,’ she said.
‘I was able to talk to clinicians and specialists, so I learned a lot through the process and I know that’s going to help me so much in my career.’
Elena says that she wouldn’t have progressed so much after treatment if it wasn’t for the help and guidance of Teenage Cancer Trust.
‘Teenage Cancer Trust put a big emphasis on life after cancer because for a young person, that diagnosis just completely destabilises you and you find yourself playing catch up with the people around you,’ she added.
‘Without Teenage Cancer Trust, I literally wouldn’t be where I am today. They were an amazing support.
‘Studying medicine can be very triggering for me after what I’ve been through but my diagnosis has really taught me the power of mindset and I got a lot of strength from the support system I had around me.
‘I’ve really embraced sharing my journey with others, and helping other people going through similar experiences has given me a lot of purpose.’
For more information on ovarian cancer, visit: www.teenagecancertrust.org/information-about-cancer/ovarian-cance
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