Gabrielle Leon was lounging at a friend’s pool in August 2020 when she suddenly felt a sharp, excruciating pain. “I had never experienced anything like it in my life. I couldn’t walk without hunching over,” she says.
The pain was so bad she went to the Emergency Department at NYU Langone Hospital—Long Island. Tests revealed a 7-centimeter mass on Leon’s right ovary. “The doctor put her hands together to show it was the size of a baseball,” Leon says. The diagnosis was equally shocking: Leon had an extremely rare form of ovarian cancer called malignant ovarian yolk sac tumor.
“Until that moment, I was living my best 24-year-old life,” says Leon, a teaching assistant in Valley Stream, Long Island. “It was like the rug was pulled from underneath me.”
The standard treatment for ovarian cancer is to surgically remove the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus. But Leon was young and feared for her future fertility. “I have always been obsessed with having kids; I wanted them so badly,” Leon says.
Deanna Gerber, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Gynecologic Oncology Associates—Mineola, reassured Leon as best she could. “Dr. Gerber told me I would go through something really rough right now, but I would be OK afterwards,” Leon says.
“Dr. Gerber listened. She gave me hope.”
Ovarian Cancer Symptoms Are Easy to Ignore
Roughly 20,000 women in the United States receive an ovarian cancer diagnosis each year. The disease usually affects women in menopause; about half of those with a diagnosis are 63 or older. But the other half are women like Leon, who are still in their childbearing years.
Ovarian cancer, and gynecologic cancers in general, can have symptoms that are so mild or ordinary, they are easy to ignore. They include the following:
- stomach upset
- pelvic pain or pressure
- abnormal bleeding
“Many times, we don’t detect ovarian cancer until it becomes very symptomatic. At that point, it’s usually at an advanced stage,” Dr. Gerber says.
Leon felt many of these symptoms, especially constipation, but only for about two weeks before the ovarian cancer was diagnosed. “The symptoms came out of nowhere and got worse and worse,” she says.
Cancer Treatment Combined with Emotional Support
Leon’s treatment started with surgery to remove the cancerous ovary and continued with three months of chemotherapy five days per week, which is the recommended treatment for women with this type of ovarian cancer. During that time, Leon also received Lupron injections, a hormone therapy that was used to help preserve the function of her remaining ovary.
“My biggest passion as an oncologist is recognizing that there’s a mental health aspect to cancer treatment and survivorship. Patients need a lot of emotional support, even after treatment is over.”
—Deanna Gerber, MD
The experience was grueling. Dr. Gerber helped Leon manage all the side effects, including the emotional ones. “I had a history of anxiety even before I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer,” Leon says. “Now, I was fighting for my life, and I was more anxious than ever. But Dr. Gerber listened. She gave me hope.’”
“My biggest passion as an oncologist is recognizing that there’s a mental health aspect to cancer treatment and survivorship,” Dr. Gerber says. “Patients need a lot of emotional support, even after treatment is over, and Gabrielle just pulled on my heartstrings because she was so young to be going through so much.”
A Doctor’s Promise Fulfilled
Leon had her last chemotherapy treatment just before Christmas in 2020. “The end of chemo was the best gift ever,” she says. She bounced back quickly. “When my period returned, I screamed for joy,” Leon says.
Three years later, Leon is in remission and continues to see Dr. Gerber every six months for routine monitoring, which includes blood tests that track the cancer tumor markers cancer antigen 125 (CA-125) and alpha-fetoprotein (AFP), which are two of the best tools available for monitoring patients’ response to treatment. She has remained cancer-free. At Leon’s last appointment, she had news: She was pregnant.
“I’m so grateful to Dr. Gerber,” Leon says. “I went through ovarian cancer surgery and chemo, and she was right. I can have a baby. This surprise pregnancy is such a miracle and a blessing.”
Don’t Ignore Gynecologic Symptoms
To protect yourself, see your gynecologist for regular check-ups and listen to your body. If you experience anything unusual, talk to your doctor. “It’s probably nothing, but it could be something. Get it checked out, especially if you’re postmenopausal as most gynecologic cancers occur after menopause,” Dr. Gerber says.