She will never forget the day when her father sat her down and told her that the doctor had phoned with some very bad news
Catherine Julius had just turned 23 when she found out she had ovarian cancer.
After the Gqeberha-based project-management student received the grim diagnosis in March, she had her right ovary and Fallopian tube removed and is now undergoing chemotherapy.
Ovarian cancer typically affects women older than 50. Cases like Catherine’s are rare, affecting only 4% of women worldwide between the ages of 20 and 34, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Here she shares her story, of being diagnosed with cancer at such a young age, what keeps her going on her bad days and how sad it makes her knowing she won’t be able to have kids.
“Growing up I was an incredibly outspoken and a determined child and as an adult, not much about me has changed.
I am an extrovert who loves Law & Order: SVU and I can proudly say I have watched every episode from season 1 right up to season 22.
When I am not helping the Law & Order detectives solve crimes, I love to bake! In November I started my own small gourmet cupcake business called Baked by Cat – Cat is my nickname.
I have not been able to bake much lately, because in March this year I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. How did I get cancer? That’s a question doctors and the Law & Order special investigations unit are yet to find an answer to.
I had never experienced any issues with my reproductive system – despite excruciating period pains, which I often brushed off as something all women go through.
I had my first period when I was 11, and in the years that followed I never missed a period, but I always had excruciating period pains – the kind that would make me curl myself into a foetal position to try to ease the pain, but it never really helped.
Just before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in SA last year, my “period pains” got even went worse. It got so bad that I had to undergo surgery after doctors detected tumours in my uterus.
I was in and out of hospital for months as doctors ran tests for an accurate diagnosis.
I remember the day I was diagnosed like it was yesterday. It started like any other day. I was attending an online lecture when my dad called me and said he was on his way home from work. There was something in his voice that made my stomach lurch when he said he needed to talk to me.
He sat me down and said that my AFP markers – alpha-feta-protein markers, also known as cancer markers – were sky high, and I would have to start chemotherapy.
I cried so much that day. I kept thinking to myself, “What more? What more are we still going to go through?”
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After years of healthy eating and taking care of myself, I felt betrayed by my body – how could it do this to me? I was heartbroken.
What followed was a rollercoaster of emotions, and that’s pretty much what most of my cancer journey has been like.
There’s no way to switch off those emotions, and you have no idea if it is the chemo drugs that are keeping you going or if it your own actual strength.
I had an aunt who lost her life to breast cancer but before that, there was no history of cancer in my family that we knew of.
I constantly question why this happened to me. Am I a bad person, because I was in such disbelief that at the age of 23 I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer?
As far as medical explanations go, there is no answer as to how or why I developed ovarian cancer tumours in my uterus at the age I did, especially because this type of ovarian cancer typically affects women over the age of 50.
Thankfully the cancer was detected in its early stages so it could be treated before it spread.
My left ovary could be saved but my right ovary and Fallopian tube had to be removed after doctors found three cancerous tumours.
I understand that it was done to save my life but it breaks my heart knowing that I won’t be able to have my own kids one day.
What now? Well, it’s been chemotherapy, and I’ve been trying to stay positive without being harsh on myself. I wake up in the morning and I have no idea who the person in the mirror is. A head which once had a thick crop of black hair is now bare, and I have lost weight.
On the days when I feel strong enough to get up and put on some makeup, I do it and remind myself that it is a good day.
The days after my chemo sessions – one session is over three days and it lasts for four hours – are the absolute worst. I vomit more than 20 times a day and I can barely sit up to drink water.
It’s a constant battle but I try not to let my diagnosis define me, ever.
Learning to love Catherine with cancer has been one of my greatest challenges.
I didn’t know who I was, especially after all my hair fell out.
It's almost as if I was an entirely different person before the diagnosis, and now I have to get to know who I am, because something new is happening to my body every day.
It is so hard to love myself on days when I cannot stand my reflection – cancer takes something away from you that I am yet to put my finger on.
The one thing I now understand is that cancer isn’t what I am nor what I want to be. It is part of my life and my journey but it doesn’t define my life.
I’ve learnt to fight with every fibre of my being and as difficult as this is to experience, it’s taught me the importance of loving myself unconditionally, to be patient with myself and my mental health.
I am also learning that life is so short and there are so many things to be grateful for. On my worst days, I’d wish for the simplest of things, like going outside to smell the fresh air or just enjoying a cup of tea without getting sick.
That made me realise I had taken so much for granted before.
Despite my diagnosis, I am doing well academically and I am even passing with distinctions. My varsity has very understanding about my illness, and luckily everything is online-based this year. I get to sit in my online lectures without having to worry about a scarf to match my outfit for the day.
Although I like to think I am a force to be reckoned with, I still believe it is the support of those around me that helps me see through the days. My parents, siblings and family have been so supportive during this time, and each one encourages me in a different way.
When I am very sick my mom always tells me, “Tomorrow cannot be worse than today” and that is what keeps me going, it makes me want to fight to see what tomorrow actually holds.
My parents have been amazing. I think they were annoyed at how much I apologised for them having to wash me on some days, or clean up after me, but they reminded me each time I apologised that they would do it again in a heartbeat.
I am so grateful.
It helps to cry and to talk to different people about what you are going through. I found journalling so helpful. When I don’t know how to talk about what I am feeling, I write about it and I feel a bit better.
To everyone living with cancer, fighting it or struggling to come to terms with the diagnosis – I know life seems so unfair right now. But always look for the good in everything that happens, even if it seems like the absolute worst.”
What is ovarian cancer?
It occurs in the ovaries which are found in the female reproductive system on each side of the uterus. This cancer is a result of abnormal cells in the ovaries that grow out of control and form a tumour.
It can go undetected for years, but women over the age of 50 who have undergone menopause and no longer ovulate regularly are at a higher risk of developing it. Ovaries consist of three types of cells – epithelial, stromal and germ – and ovarian cancer can develop into three types of these tumours.
Epithelial tumours develop on the outer tissue layer of the ovaries and 90% of ovarian cancers are a result of these tumours.
Stromal tumours form in the hormone-producing cells.
Germ tumours, which grow in the egg-producing cells, are rare.
Signs and symptoms
Ovarian cancer symptoms vary and may include:
- Frequent need to urinate
- Abdominal pain, swelling and bloating
- Discomfort during menstruation
- Pain during intercourse
It depends on how far along the cancer is. Treatment can include:
- Surgery to remove the cancerous tumours
- Targeted therapy
- Hormone therapy
EXTRA SOURCES: HEALTHLINE, MAYO CLINIC, CANCER CENTER