For years, Hannah Catton, 24, experienced recurrent urinary tract infections and then irregular “extremely painful” periods with belly bloating. She frequently visited doctors who would prescribe antibiotics. As her symptoms increased, one doctor suggested that Catton lose weight to treat them. She later learned her weight wasn’t a problem: She had ovarian cancer.
“I was really rather angry as I’m reasonably (physically) fit. I’m a size 10 and had a bloated abdomen but otherwise didn’t consider myself overweight,” Catton, of Melbourne, Australia, told TODAY via email. “I thought she was wrong and everything she said to me after that I didn’t put much faith in it.”
She’s hopes to encourage others to speak up if they notice something off with their bodies.“I’ve learned to be open about my experiences and to discuss them so that I can hopefully help women fight to be listened to and get an early diagnosis,” she said. “The number of messages I’ve had from ladies with stories so similar to mine — where they have been brushed off by doctors and told it’s weight, hormones, menopause, etc — is shocking.”
Infections, painful periods, bloating
Before Catton moved to Australia from England she started experiencing frequent UTIs in 2019. Doctors often prescribed antibiotics, but they kept returning.
In September 2020, her periods became erratic and painful. She tracked her symptoms so she could tell her doctors everything: the UTI symptoms, boating, constipation, diarrhea, pain, gas and hot flashes. One doctor attributed her menstrual changes to stress and recommended she return for a follow-up in three months. Unsatisfied, she went to another doctor who told her the same.
“Around March I went back still with all the above symptoms that I was associating with my period and this (doctor) again told me I was stressed — and that my BMI is in the overweight range so I should keep a close eye on that and make sure I eat healthy,” Catton recalled.
Catton was crestfallen.
“I left the appointment feeling like I was thought of as a waste of time,” she said. “I appreciate how hard medical staff work and to me feeling like I wasted their time was so upsetting.”
Still the pain increased and she finally saw a gynecologist who ordered an ultrasound, where they found what they thought was a 10-centimeter fibroid either on — or in — her uterus. She was placed on a waiting list for surgery to remove it. But in October 2021, her symptoms increased dramatically after a weekend of horseback riding.
“When I dismounted after the first day riding, I collapsed in pain to the point of almost vomiting. It was excruciating,” she said. “I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time so I took as much pain relief as I could and tried to sleep it off.”
She tried working out and again collapsed. Her boyfriend insisted on taking her to the emergency room.
“I was admitted with a suspected ectopic pregnancy and had ultrasounds and then a CT and MRI scan and lots of blood tests,” she said. “When those results came back was when I was given my diagnosis.”
Her tumor had ruptured causing the intensified agony and doctors diagnosed her with stage 1 ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer is often called “the silent killer” because the symptoms can be confused with other illnesses or even PMS. Signs include:
Feeling full early.
Changes in bowel habits, such as diarrhea and constipation.
Changes in bladder habits, such as going too often.
In the United States, only 20% of ovarian cancers are found in early stages, according to the American Cancer Society. About 94% of patients exceed a five-year survival rate if they receive an early diagnosis.
Catton’s treatment started almost immediately.
“I had emergency surgery to remove the ruptured (tumor),” she said. “My wonderful oncologist wanted to hit me hard and fast with chemo.”
She has four rounds of one-week long chemotherapy. While her bloodwork looks good, it’s been tough not having her family to help her.
“They have always been my biggest supporters and not being able to have them around is so hard. It’s hard on them as well,” Catton said. “I have an amazing support network of friends in Australia but not having the friends I’ve known most of my life around, the familiarity of them, is rough.”
At times, Catton struggles with the complex emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis.
“I’ve learned to deal with extremes, fear, anger, loneliness and to weather them and that accepting help from people around you isn’t a weakness,” she said. “So much gets taken away from you with a cancer diagnosis so quickly and navigating that is hard for me.”
But she feels comfortable sharing questions with her doctors so that treatment feels like more of a partnership.
“I’ve learned to speak my mind more, to discuss with my (doctors) and push them with questions for more of an understanding of why I’m having XYZ treatment and to not feel bad for that,” Catton said. “It is their job to provide me with medical care and for me to understand what is happening with my body.”
Catton wants to empower people to speak up about their health experiences in the hopes of sparking change.
“Not talking about experiences like these means that they will keep happening to women. It shouldn’t happen. I should’ve been offered an ultrasound and referrals months before,” she said. “The stigma attached to complaining about period pain/issues and all the symptoms that includes needs to stop. So many lives are affected by it.”