Thanks, Angelina

Do you have a history of fibroids?" she asked. My heart froze and my head raced.

I was on a bed in a darkened room in a hospital in Novena doing my annual medical examination last month. A pelvic ultrasound wasn't part of the package, but when the doctor asked if I wanted to do it, I said okay.

I'd done it several times before and it's painless. A gel is spread over your lower belly and the radiographer uses a hand-held device to scan your abdomen.

Did I have fibroids? I tried to remember and told her that, yes, I think one of the previous tests showed I did.

The pelvic ultrasound was the last hurdle I had to cross that morning. The radiographer had earlier done a breast ultrasound that seemed to pass uneventfully. I was hoping this would be over quickly too.

It wasn't to be.

She said my bladder wasn't full and so the examination would take a while. Even then, it seemed to be taking forever. She kept going back to one particular spot at my lower belly.

She asked if I had children and I said no. She continued her probe.

"There's something wrong there, isn't there?" I asked her, worried.

She didn't answer.

I felt a shiver run through me.

I knew I was putting her in a difficult position but I had to know.

"Is it my ovary?" I insisted fearfully. "It is my ovary, isn't it?"

She gave a little nod, and I freaked out.

She asked if I'd done a pelvic ultrasound before and I said I had. She went outside, I presumed to check my records.

My heart was pounding by then.

She returned soon after, did one final check of that particular area then said I could get changed.

I wasn't trembling exactly, but I was extremely worried.

"You found something didn't you?" I asked again. She said she couldn't say anything, adding "the doctor will say". I asked to see the doctor but it was nearly 2pm on a Saturday and they had all left. She said I could check on Monday.

I went back to H, who had finished his examination and was waiting for me.

I think they found something in my ovaries, I told him grimly.

I took out my iPad and started Googling "ovarian cancer".

My heart sank deeper. Article after article said it was a dangerous form of cancer with a five-year survival rate of 75 per cent if diagnosed before it spreads, and 20 per cent if it has spread to the upper abdomen.

My weekend was miserable.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and in this Internet age, everyone thinks he knows everything after consulting Dr Google.

I got green in the face and sick in the stomach reading up any form of illness I could think of related to the female reproductive system. I also dug out my past ultrasound reports and pored over them.

What's the point of worrying, H said. You don't know what's wrong or if anything is wrong. Don't dwell.

I can't stop imagining the worst, I said.

He advised me to call the clinic on Monday to check, but I decided not to, clinging on to the hope that no news would be good news.

Monday passed with me feeling jittery every time my phone rang, as did Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. I tried to relax over the weekend, but on Monday, I started worrying all over again.

My mother had a robust response to my fretting. If they find something, at least you will know about it early, she said. You can then "cut it off".

On Tuesday night when I came home from work, I saw a thick envelope on the kitchen table. My medical report, as well as H's, was inside. It was still sealed.

Why didn't you tell me it'd come, I asked. I didn't want to worry you, he said.

My fears were not unfounded.

One part of the report was marked in bold and read: "The ultrasound of the pelvis showed a septated right ovarian cyst measuring about 1.7cm. You should have this evaluated by repeat ultrasound in another menstrual phase to follow up."

The word "septated" sounded scary and sure enough, when I Googled it, the first article I saw warned that such cysts "are more likely to be cancerous than any other cyst". ("Septated", I also discovered, means the cyst is divided into segments.)

See, I said to H, I told you so. I was frightened, but I also felt a sense of vindication and relief. At least I knew now, and if anything was wrong, I could get it checked.

I sat down to read the report more carefully. The radiologist had also noted that "no solid component is seen within the cyst" and that it was "probably physiological". (I took that as good news.) But she recommended another ultrasound "for further evaluation".

I spent the night Googling "septated ovarian cysts" but was none the wiser.

On Monday, I saw the GP at work. She said I should consult a gynaecologist for his opinion. I made an appointment for later this month.

A week after that little drama, news broke that actress Angelina Jolie had undergone a voluntary double mastectomy because she has a gene that makes her more at risk of ovarian and breast cancer.

She had chosen to go public about it so other women who could be cancer-prone would get tested and know their options.

It was a revelation that came with some risk of damage to her image because, let's face it, to most people, especially men, a mastectomy isn't ranked up there with what is considered sexy and seductive, and she is in the business of being that.

But reading the news, my respect and admiration for her shot up.

Despite being so beautiful, accomplished, rich and famous, she, too, must have faced the sort of fears all other women have about their health. But instead of letting it overpower her, she chose to, in her own words, "be proactive and to minimise the risk as much I could".

The bit that truly inspired me was when she said "life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of".

It's tough being a woman because so many things can go haywire with your body, and when it does, the fear and worry can be overwhelming.

If - and when - I get bad news, I hope I can be as brave as her and confront the problem rather than be cowed by it.

sumiko@sph.com.sg


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