Haley’s story: Being diagnosed with cancer at 21

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Haley Galvin

Haley Galvin before and after beginning chemotherapy treatments to fight ovarian cancer.

Haley Galvin, Managing Editor

About four months ago, I sat talking to my best friend about how my worst nightmare would be if I wasn’t able to have kids one day. Little did I know, two days after that conversation my doctor would tell me there was a large mass on my abdomen that would make my nightmare come true. 

In a series of stories I will be sharing my experience of being diagnosed with cancer at the age of 21, having surgery, going through chemo and all the things that have come along with having cancer during a pandemic. 

How it all began:

I scheduled my annual doctor’s appointment in July. Around that time I had noticed I looked a bit more bloated than normal, and it wasn’t going away, so I thought I would talk to my doctor about it. After feeling my stomach, she felt a rather large mass. We needed to get a CT scan and CA 125 blood test right away. A CA 125 test is a test that tests the levels CA-125 or carcinogen antigen in the blood that is high if a woman has ovarian cancer. 

A couple days went by, and I got a call from my doctor saying that I had a large mass around my ovaries and my CA-125 levels came back really high. That meant I needed to go see a specialist at Rush in Chicago. It could still be benign, but we should suspect malignancy just in case. Better to prepare for a worst-case scenario. 

Once the specialist saw my CT scan and my numbers, he decided I would need surgery as soon as possible to remove the mass and try to save as much of my reproductive system as possible. 

That was my top priority. I still want to have kids. I am young. I should still have that option. 

Surgery was scheduled for five days later, and I was to go get a COVID-19 test in two days to make sure I was cleared for surgery. I got a negative test result and was all set to go — physically, that is, mentally was a whole other story. My whole world had been turned upside down in the matter of two weeks.

I really tried hard not to look up statistics because that would drive me crazy, but I heard that the chance of actually having ovarian cancer at age 21 was very rare.

  

I held onto that hope and leaned on my family for support. It was hard not to worry every day leading up to surgery. I cried a lot. And I mean A LOT. Every day I was crying over what could be my new reality. All I could think about was losing my chance to have kids, or even worse, losing my own life.  

Surgery day came and to say I was nervous was an understatement. Best case scenario: It was just a large cyst and we could remove it no problem. Worst case scenario: It was cancer on my ovaries and I would have to remove parts of my uterus and never be able to have kids. 

I had to prepare for either option. 

I trusted my surgeon was going to do what he felt was best to save me. As he told me when I first met him, “We are a team now.” 

I placed my trust in him and I will always be grateful for the work he did, even though he discovered two masses on each of my ovaries. He had to remove both, which meant the chance of having my own biological children is no longer an option for me. 

I dreamed of having kids of my own my whole life. Having a daughter that would have my blue eyes and freckles. A son who would have my smile. I wanted so badly to have my own children who were my blood who I could say, “They got that from their momma.” Now I will never get that chance. That is one of the hardest things for me. There are still days I cry about it months later. Some days I can’t even think about it or I won’t stop crying. I think it will take time for me to heal from that and I am not sure I will ever fully be ok with it but I have to try. I know I can adopt and still have children other ways, but losing part of my dream still breaks my heart. 

Recovering from surgery wasn’t very tough. I had a great team of doctors and nurses to care for me. The worst part was not knowing yet if it was for sure cancer. My surgeon said, by the looks of it, he was pretty sure it was, but we had to do a biopsy to be sure. 

And with that, I had to accept the truth that I probably had cancer. A six-letter word that is probably one of the scariest things to hear. I have had thoughts of being diagnosed with cancer at an old age, but not at 21. Plus, the likelihood was so low. I wasn’t supposed to have cancer. It couldn’t be happening to me. What did I do in my life to deserve this? Haven’t I been through enough? 

And a few days later, the confirmation came that it was in fact, low-grade stage three ovarian cancer. 

It was official. I have cancer. At 21 years old. I have an illness that could, and has, killed so many people. It is the most terrifying thing to ever hear. And hearing stage three is even worse, however, it is low-grade, which means not as scary or deadly as normal stage three. However, that didn’t really put my mind at ease. 

The confirmation of cancer meant I had two options: I could get six rounds of chemotherapy and then be on hormone treatments or I could just do the hormone treatments. For my type of cancer, they had no answer of which was better. They were still doing clinical trials to test results but they couldn’t do much to guide me so I was on my own to figure out what to do.

That is a lot to decide all on my own, but it had to be my choice. Chemotherapy is something you hear horror stories about. It makes you so sick and so weak and immunocompromised, which is not ideal in the middle of a pandemic. That sounds awful and scary.

But if I don’t do it, the cancer could come back and I could regret not fighting it harder now. 

While it could come back regardless, I chose to go through chemo. I decided I wanted to fight like hell. I promised myself and my loved ones I would and so that is what I am doing.

I am halfway through my chemo treatments and it has lived up to the horror stories. But that is a story for another day. 

I will be taking you along for the journey that I am going through being a student, a managing editor at a newspaper and a 21-year-old trying to live life…while also having cancer.