On the outside, I looked like your normal 18-year-old girl. My days were spent working for Starbucks, volunteering as a youth cheerleading coach, and dreaming about the next chapter of my life where I would create a family of my own. I felt it in my heart from a very young age I held a bigger purpose than the life I led. I didn’t know what that was exactly, so people knew me as the varsity cheerleading captain, the homecoming princess, the smart girl in class who loved writing poetry, and a loyal friend. I didn’t know I’d one day tell a story about two bouts with cancer, motherhood, and a journey full of miracles.
On Monday, September 14, 2015, I visited the gynecologist because I was experiencing severe bloating and pain in my pelvis.
Within a week, my stomach grew to appear 5 months pregnant. The doctors gave me a pregnancy test, and of course, it was negative — I was still a virgin. Next, they decided it was best to do an ultrasound and CAT scan to see my ovaries and appendix. I went back to my gynecologist Friday morning, and she explained I had an 11- by 13-centimeter mass on one ovary, extra fluid in my stomach, and enlarged lymph nodes — all indications of ovarian cancer.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A few days later, my blood was sent to the lab to do some testing before I was called by an OB/GYN oncology specialist in the Stanford area. Her name was Dr. O’Hanlan. She and I got to know each other well over the next few years.
On September 23, the doctor diagnosed me with stage 3 ovarian cancer.
Three days later, I was prepping for surgery while being told the mass, any and all infected organs, my ovaries, eggs, and my uterus would be removed. A full hysterectomy. At 18, the thought of removing my reproductive organs was not only terrifying, but also it was heartbreaking.
My biggest dream has always been to have my own children and raise a family. I love kids so much, and to think I’d never have a child with my own genes and my own character traits completely broke me down.
I was devastated and I felt my worth as a woman would be diminished.
Thoughts like, "How could anyone want to be with me if I couldn’t give them a child?" ran through my mind. I was so uneasy about what would come next and I couldn’t stop thinking, "Why me? Why would the only thing I have ever dreamed of be the one thing taken away from me?" I turned to what I knew, poetry:
"With the world blurring before my eyes
and my ears screaming for the answers,
My body is holding back the cries
as the doctor speaks the word Cancer."
"My future becomes unknown …
"as the killer is coming through
in my bodies combat zone
where there is nothing I can do.
Positivity is so hard to keep
when all your dreams are being crushed.
You can’t seem to put your fears to sleep
when your whole world must adjust."
"Doesn’t cancer see,
"before it attacks,
All the beauty
In the hearts that it cracks?
I’ll always stand strong
even though I’m what it’s trying to kill,
and I’ll see these scars lifelong
as a reminder of all I can fulfill."
In the days before surgery, my incredible small town of Paso Robles, California, came together in unexplainable ways to fight alongside me.
With T-shirts, teal cheerleading bows at the hometown football games, fundraisers, magazine articles, a GoFundMe, and even news broadcasts all sharing the "Rally for Riley" journey, my story went viral. It was a feeling so hard to explain, seeing everyone come together for me like that.
When the people closest to me would show up to my house and break down into tears the moment they saw me, I felt strong but seeing those reactions and seeing the magnitude of support I was receiving, also made me realize how scary and brutal this disease is. It made me want to spread awareness.
The best wishes were granted and a miracle was given to me on surgery day.
After going into the operating room prepared to have a full hysterectomy, I was blown away to wake up to hear Dr. O’ Hanlan was able to save ONE of my ovaries and my uterus for the time being. She carved off all of the cancer tissue that completely surrounded my remaining ovary. With the immeasurable amount of happiness I felt at that time, I also was not out of the woods yet …
Dr. O’Hanlan said both her and the pathologist on-site, after studying all of this for so many years, were actually completely baffled by the type of ovarian tumors I had. My entire abdomen was infected with small tumors that had spread beyond my ovaries. Surgery went overtime as Dr. O’Hanlan was able to safely remove every. Single. One.
It wasn’t until two weeks later I was given answers about the tumors in my body.
After intensive testing at UCSF, my tumors were finally described as low malignant potential tumors. This meant the tumors had cancer cells but not enough to treat with radiation or chemotherapy. This was great news. The cancer had not spread outside of the tumors, therefore, when the mass was removed, the cancer was gone too! Further treatment was not necessary, I still had one ovary and my uterus, and my surgeon was confident it would never come back. That was until 4 years later …
I attended my routine checkups twice a year.
These consisted of ultrasounds, bloodwork, and exams by my gynecologist. While I was always anxious about the results, I tried hard to hold onto trust in my surgeon’s skill and the amazing work she did. But, life happens right? In 2019, my bloodwork came back with abnormal levels of white blood cells, and my ultrasound showed another mass. This time it measured 18 centimeters, much larger than the first one, and surrounding my ovary so much no parts of it were visible.
Once again, surgery was scheduled and we would hope for the best. Going into it, doctors made it clear the priority was to save my life, but all I could think about was losing my ovary. I couldn’t get lucky twice. I have been blessed with so many miracles already … the bad news was destined to come eventually and my heart was broken, once again.
August 9, 2019, was the day I went in for surgery number two, this time in Fresno, CA.
It was so special and important to me I worked with Dr. O’Hanlan again! Although I was a little discouraged, I knew the possibilities of miracles after surgery number one so I tried to stay positive. My family and my loving boyfriend stood by my side, and I knew I had to be strong for them. It was scary for us all. I woke up from my three-hour procedure to hear my remaining ovary was still inside! Another miracle!
Once again, I felt such gratitude and joy. My surgeon spoke to me about how this tumor was exactly like the previous one. She was so shocked the cancer returned and explained she only left my ovary so I’d have the option to harvest my eggs. After that, it must come out. That meant surgery number three would be in the future, but I was so grateful for a chance at having my own children!
After recovery, I could not waste any time.
I started the egg retrieval process right away. For months, my days consisted of three to five self-administered hormone injections into my stomach, four hours of driving to Santa Barbara and back home, and vaginal ultrasounds, almost daily. It was brutal, mentally and physically.
I had to take time off work due to traveling, my body had bruises, I grew facial hair, I gained weight, I was fatigued, and I had to endure every day with my hormone levels all over the place. (Props to my boyfriend for putting up with that!)
It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make to stop egg retrieval cycles after my third round.
With only a total of eight eggs, I was not very hopeful but I kept reminding myself how fortunate I was I even got this opportunity. I am not going to lie though, the bills keep coming and the stress of being a 22-year-old girl with tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills this early in life is hard to cope with.
The miracles definitely didn’t stop there though … It was just five days before my last and final surgery. The one that would remove my remaining ovary, and with it my chances of having my own child, naturally. It was in the midst of my pre-op procedures when one of the nurses came to me with the line I thought I would never ever hear. The words I had dreamed of my entire life, the same ones I thought would stay just a dream … "You’re pregnant."
What? That’s impossible. Really? Clearly, I could not believe what I was hearing.
Five days. Just five days before it was almost too late … simply magical. Our son, Brixton, is now 2 months old. Even today when I look at him, I still cannot believe he is ours. Seeing his face and looking into his eyes is a feeling no one could have ever prepared me for. I’m a mom now!!
Going through all of this was never easy.
It is actually crazy to see how much I have endured in just 24 years. I have become the outcast in my group of friends because of the different roads I have been forced to travel. I have had to turn down opportunities due to my financial situation.
I have even gotten so much hate for things like keeping my hair and not facing chemo, not having "real cancer" as some perceive. It’s never been about defending myself though. It’s really been about raising awareness.
Raising awareness about ovarian cancer has always been important to me, but in the bigger picture, awareness about the difficulty that goes on in people’s lives that goes unseen.
You never know what someone is going through. The person standing next to you in line at the grocery store, or the bank, or even in the Starbucks line could be going through the hardest day of their life. The extra pounds you see surrounding their body, the abnormal amount of facial hair you see on that woman’s face, or even the person that looks perfectly fine, please remember to be kind. Please remember my story, Brixton’s story, and remember what is under the surface could be a miracle in the making and they just need a little time.