At sixteen, your health isn't necessarily the first thing on your mind. Exams, revision, friend drama, boys and the thought of a long hot Summer ahead are probably the main concerns of your average sixteen year old girl. So it's almost understandable that when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer mid-way through my GCSEs, that it came as a complete and utter shock.
As women we're often all too guilty of dismissing any physical symptoms, blaming any slight twinge on hormones or stress. Luckily for me, my Mum noticed my stomach looking unusually bloated and - bravely - confronted sixteen year old me to tell me my stomach was looking a little bigger than normal. Dangerous territory to mention to any teenage girl, but my Mum's concern was, unfortunately, well-placed.
It was discovered I had a large cyst on my ovary, large enough that it was around the size of a five-month pregnancy. Looking back now, how I hadn't noticed this happening myself seems almost ridiculous. But at such a young age, illnesses such as ovarian cancer weren't even on my radar. Any stomach pains I'd been having, no matter how intense, I simply put down to period pains or exam stress. Once or twice I'd convinced myself I was getting appendicitis, but I always had hypochondriac tendencies and as the pains would eventually pass, I'd just continue as normal.
Discovering I needed to have major surgery was a terrifying experience that I could barely comprehend at such a young age. At this point all my doctors knew was that I had an abnormally large cyst on my ovary, which hopefully was benign but they needed to remove it ASAP.
Maybe a little unusually for a teenager, I prayed that my surgery wouldn't interfere with any of my exams - I'm sure most teenagers would do anything for a legitimate excuse to skip a major exam - but I'd worked so hard that I just wanted my chance to put all my revision to use and sit my exams normally like every other student in my year. Unfortunately, I only had the chance to sit seven exams before my operation date was moved forward. I'm still so thankful to this day to the NHS for prioritising my case and getting me into hospital so quickly.
My operation went as smoothly as possible, and a month later I went to what I believed would be a follow-up appointment. It was this day, fresh back from a family Summer holiday, that I was officially diagnosed with cancer. Nothing can prepare you for the feeling of pure shock. It's honestly the weirdest sensation to know that something so devastating and terrifying is happening within your own body, and you're completely unaware. Thankfully, after a further operation my surgeon successfully removed my tumour and I was completely clear of cancer. Thanks to the great attention I received from everyone down to my GP, my first gynaecologist and then my oncologist, they caught my cancer incredibly early at stage 1.
Symptoms are funny things, it's a difficult line to draw being aware of and in-tune with your body and the changes it goes through, to becoming a complete obsessive hypochondriac. Since my diagnosis, I have suffered a lot with anxiety, which doesn't come as a complete surprise considering what I've been through. But I think what is incredibly important is learning what's 'normal' for your body - because there isn't just one 'normal' for everyone.
Unfortunately, the symptoms for ovarian cancer can all too easily be over looked. As women we're so used to just grinning and baring the occasional stomach cramp/pain or even bloating, so it's not too surprising to learn that it's the fifth most common cancer amongst women. But we must learn to speak up about our symptoms and decide what's normal and what's not for our bodies, then it becomes so much easier to protect our own health. I'm incredibly lucky that my Mum noticed my symptoms and was there to notice what wasn't 'normal' for me, thanks to her quick thinking and my doctors quick diagnosis I'm lucky to remain cancer free nearly 10 years later.
The symptoms of ovarian cancer are:
· Persistent bloating
· Persistent tummy pain
· Needing to wee more frequently
· Feeling full very quickly after eating
If the symptoms are new, unusual for you and happen more than 12 times in a month, book an appointment to speak to your GP. For more information visit www.ovarian.org.uk
HuffPost UK is running a month-long project in March called All Women Everywhere, providing a platform to reflect the diverse mix of female experience and voices in Britain today. Through blogs, features and video, we'll be exploring the issues facing women specific to their age, ethnicity, social status, sexuality and gender identity. If you'd like to blog on our platform around these topics, email firstname.lastname@example.org with a summary of who you are and what you'd like to blog about