Courtesy Annie Tolentino
Annie Tolentino woke up one morning in 2016 with nagging abdominal pain and fatigue she couldn’t shake. The married mother of three knew something was wrong. “I remember waking up feeling tired and wanting to stay in bed longer than usual,” she says. That was unusual behavior for the energetic Bay Area-based sales manager. “I was still in my robe when I called the nurse hotline to report a very sharp pain in my left abdomen area. My call was brushed off as a non-emergency and I was given no follow up directives. That call was the beginning for me.”
Tolentino’s mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer a few weeks later, and this renewed Tolentino’s determination to figure out her pain. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 22,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year, and more than 14,000 die from the disease. Because the signs are subtle, they’re easy to miss—for women and their doctors. (Here’s the advice doctors wish you knew about ovarian cancer.)
Five months after her mother’s bad news, Tolentino went in for a physical: “I told my doctors that I may be at heightened risk for ovarian cancer due to my mom’s diagnosis—I knew that family history is linked to an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. I told them I was concerned about my abdominal pain that never went away. It was always there, dull, but obvious to me.”
Pressing her doctors to do more, Tolentino asked for some of the screens her mother had undergone. “I asked for a CA125 testing, knowing that this was the blood test performed on my Mom. With the CA125 test, they also perform a vaginal ultrasound.” When the test results were abnormal, the staff told Tolentino it was because of existing polyps and sent her home. Unfortunately, symptoms of ovarian cancer can be subtle, so find out 7 signs of ovarian cancer you might be ignoring.
Three months later, things got worse: Tolentino began having multiple periods a month, continual spotting, and vaginal discharge. And her abdominal pain wouldn’t go away. While the signs of ovarian cancer are subtle, if women have persistent or frequent symptoms like this, they should see a doctor, stresses the American Cancer Society. Tolentino did: “My belly began growing and that’s when I insisted that more tests be done, including a pelvic exam and CT scan.” After her pelvic exam seemed normal, her gynecologist told her she worried too much. “It was the CT scan ordered by my general practitioner that finally revealed stage three cancer,” she says.
“I was diagnosed in 2017, and I was livid. In my heart, I knew I had done everything to advocate for my body. The fact that I was in an advanced stage was very upsetting. I was hurt, sad, and angry.” After her own experience—and losing her mother at age 61 to the illness—Tolentino’s goal is to encourage women to stay vigilant in the hopes of saving more lives. That said, there’s plenty of misinformation out there, so make sure you these 10 common myths of ovarian cancer that you need to ignore.
“I talk about ovarian cancer to friends, relatives, co-workers, to anyone who will listen. I believe there’s more I can do to help spread awareness. I want to use my voice in honor of my mother, and in support of my own survivorship.” Today, Tolentino actively spreads awareness by partnering with Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance. (Here are 14 things about ovarian cancer Ob-Gyns wish you knew.)