When I moved to Massachusetts from California for graduate school, I was used to being active, working out 5 days a week, and avoiding red meat—I have a family history of colon cancer, so I was doing everything I could to stay healthy. But the change in scenery and stress of school was definitely affecting my body.
I was tired all the time and started having random, sharp pains in my stomach. I gave myself some time to adjust to the move, but my symptoms continued to get worse to the point where it was hard to get out of bed every day. When I shared these changes with my doctor, he ordered blood tests which indicated anemia. I started taking iron supplements and continued testing my blood every month to monitor the condition. But I wasn’t feeling any better – in fact, I started fainting because my red blood cell counts got so low.
By this time, a year and a half had passed and I was moving to Oxford, England, to start my PhD program. I was still having stomach pain and fatigue, so my doctor suggested a colonoscopy as the next step. Once I got settled in England and waited 6 months for an appointment opening, I was finally able to get a colonoscopy, which came back clean. I was getting frustrated that my symptoms were getting worse and we didn’t know the cause – I started having really sharp pains in my stomach and couldn’t eat anything without vomiting afterwards. The next test we tried was an ultrasound, which also showed everything was normal.
By now, over two years had gone by since I first noticed symptoms and I planned to come back to the United States to continue my PhD research. I almost didn’t make the flight because I could barely walk and couldn’t stop throwing up. Two days after arriving, I was admitted to the hospital for kidney failure. The doctor did an endoscopy and found a tumor, which was later diagnosed as duodenal cancer. I had a Whipple procedure shortly after that, and am currently undergoing chemotherapy treatments.
When I first started feeling fatigued and having stomach pains, the anemia and stress diagnosis made sense—I was otherwise young and healthy, and had just gone through a big life change. As the symptoms continued, I was a little worried due to my family history of cancer, but the initial testing didn’t detect any other signs of serious disease. I later learned that if the colonoscopy had gone just an inch further, they would have seen the tumors. Through my journey, I have become an advocate for not giving up when it comes to your health. Be persistent—you know your body better than anyone, so listen to it!
- sharp pains in stomach