As she climbed the stairs at her brother’s home in Melbourne, Fiona May thought her December 2019 New Year’s holiday was off to a rocky start.
The resident of Bunbury, Western Australia, grew breathless with every step.
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The then 44-year-old suffered from fatigue, appeared bloated – with swollen ankles, fingers and toes – and vomited every few days.
“I was out of breath and I was like, ‘This is weird, this is not normal,'” says May, who was also bleeding.
It wasn’t the first time she had these symptoms.
Months earlier, in September 2019, she commented that she was “getting more and more exhausted.”
“I got some irregular spotting and bleeding, but it wasn’t a period, it was just enough to be annoying,” she tells 7Life.
She also began gaining weight, although her appetite decreased.
“It was slow going, but even then I was flat out at work, I was very busy with the family, I was always running around,” she says.
“I thought it was just life and I think women tend to suffer in silence, especially when it’s personal like it is for me – you just move on.”
In October, May visited her doctor, who initially believed she had typical perimenopause symptoms.
However, an ultrasound scan the following month revealed an 8 cm benign uterine fibroid – a benign tumor that forms in the wall of the uterus.
Due to the size of the tumor, May had to have a hysterectomy.
The operation was booked for early January 2020, just days after she was due to return from her holiday in Melbourne with her then 46-year-old husband Jason.
“I asked if I had to postpone (the vacation) or if I could go,” she recalls.
“I was concerned about flying, but I was given medication to stop the bleeding and told I could walk.”
But when May arrived in Melbourne after Christmas, her condition worsened.
And when she was unable to climb the stairs at her brother’s house, her sister-in-law took her to her local GP.
A blood test showed signs of clotting.
“I got a call from the doctor saying I was positive for blood clots and that I needed to go to an emergency room,” she says.
“That was pretty much the start of my nightmare because I spent my entire vacation in the hospital.”
For two weeks, doctors tried – unsuccessfully – to find the clot.
“That’s when my heart started failing too, so I was taken to the cardiac unit and monitored 24 hours a day,” she says.
“At that point, they were more worried about my heart because they didn’t know what else was going on.
“I just felt miserable and started to think I wasn’t going to leave the place.”
When May was in stable condition, she was released and allowed to travel back to Washington for surgery.
Back in Bunbury, it was determined that the hysterectomy could not be performed due to ill health.
“My husband and I were devastated because I was so miserable and tired and had gotten over it,” she says.
“I just wanted to get back to normal and get back to work.”
May was referred to numerous specialists, but before she could seek help, she began bleeding profusely every few nights.
“It was horrible for me and my poor husband to deal with and one night I had a huge clot that looked like a liver,” she says.
She was taken to the emergency room, where a blood clot was found in her lungs – a result of cancer.
“That sent (doctors) to panic units and I was sent to Perth the same day RFDS (Royal Flying Doctor Service) and taken to the intensive care unit,” she recalls.
It was determined that the 8 cm tumor in May’s uterus was actually not benign, but a rare disease called cancer Gestational trophoblastic disease.
GTD is when tumors develop in the uterus from cells that should form the placenta instead. Most are not carcinogenic.
May learned the tumor had formed in her uterus, not the fetus, during a “failed pregnancy.”
Within a month it had almost doubled – to 15 cm.
“Because I had bad periods in the past, I wouldn’t have known it,” May explains the failed pregnancy.
They operated on her two weeks after she was admitted to the hospital and removed the tumor and both her ovaries, her uterus and her cervix.
“I looked like I was nine months pregnant (before the tumor was removed),” she says.
“I actually ran out of space, it was getting ridiculous.”
Back on your feet
May had to undergo chemotherapy for six months.
“I was told that if I didn’t have chemotherapy, there was a 50 percent chance that chemotherapy would get into my brain,” she explains.
“But with the treatment, there was a 98 percent chance of recovery.
“It was brutal and I obviously wasn’t a fan, but I wanted to live and be there for my family.
“I was too young to die.”
During treatment, May had to drive four hours back from Bunbury to Perth every week.
“It was a small financial burden on the family,” she says.
Her biggest concern was her family, including her four stepchildren, and she says the support of the cancer council helped them get through the difficult times.
“They were under stress, I was very worried about them,” she says.
“It wasn’t until after chemotherapy, when I started to recover, that I actually started to grieve and process.
“(Cancer Council) covered everything from advice to workshops, exercise classes to all kinds of support and financial support.”
After her chemotherapy, May has to undergo strict surveillance for five years.
The 48-year-old has now been in this monitoring period for three and a half years.
She says the Cancer Council is still making efforts to ensure she is aware of the counseling services it provides.
“I feel so lucky to be here and I’m so thankful for all these amazing services and my amazing specialists, all the nurses and staff at the hospital, they’re just amazing,” she says.
With all the help she’s received over the past few years, May says the “least” she can do is look for ways to raise awareness and fundraise.
She also wants to help others on their journey to health.
One of her top suggestions is to “write a list of questions” before you see your doctor so you don’t forget a detail, big or small.
“When you’re not feeling well and you’re going through treatment and you’re not clear anymore, it’s hard to remember everything,” she says.
“So I think it’s really important for people to know that this is normal, to be kind to yourself and to ask the questions that are important to you.”
May also urges women to “trust their intuition.”
“Know when to move forward and say ‘no, there’s something really wrong here,’ and get another opinion when it comes to that,” she says.
May is an ambassador for Cancer Council Australia’s largest morning tea.
Sign up to host your own Biggest Morning Tea or donate to support people with cancer biggesetmorningtea.com.au
If you have any questions or concerns about cancer, call the Cancer Council on 13 11 20.
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