Advertisement

Student rushed to hospital with ‘pulled muscle’ diagnosed with rare cancer

Elena Espinosa Cabrera says her diagnosis has made her even more determined to train as a doctor (Collect/PA Real Life)
Elena Espinosa Cabrera says her diagnosis has made her even more determined to train as a doctor (Collect/PA Real Life)

A medical student who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at just 17, throwing up outside A&E due to the 14cm cyst wrapped around her fallopian tube, is now training to be a doctor and says her diagnosis has only made her “more determined”.

Elena Espinosa Cabrera, 20, who is studying at the University of Edinburgh and is from north Devon, was revising for her medical school entrance exams when she went to A&E with pain in her abdomen which she had thought was a muscle strain.

A 14cm cyst was found wrapped around her right ovary, and she said being told she had ovarian germ cell cancer was a “huge shock” – but has made her more determined to pave a career in medical care.

After nine rounds of chemotherapy, Elena is not yet considered to be in remission but her cancer is now classed as “inactive”.

She said: “Being in the hospital environment was very interesting for me because it’s the field I want to go into, despite it being from the wrong perspective.

“My diagnosis has made me even more determined to train as a doctor and help others.”

Elena first noticed symptoms when she felt a pain in her right side in November 2020.

She said: “I was studying for an exam at the time and one morning I woke up and felt a strain on the right side of my abdomen, it felt like a muscle strain.”

Without Teenage Cancer Trust, I literally wouldn't be where I am today. They were an amazing support

Elena Espinosa Cabrera

Elena attempted to focus on her exam preparation but struggled to concentrate as the pain grew worse and, finding she could no longer sit still at her desk, she phoned 111.

She was advised to go to A&E.

She said: “The pain got really unbearable. I don’t normally like to complain, but I couldn’t handle it any more.

“My mum left work and went with me to A&E. By the time I got there, I was in so much pain that I was throwing up outside.”

She added: “I was admitted straight away but doctors couldn’t understand what was causing the agony.”

Initial theories of appendicitis and kidney stones were ruled out and Elena was booked in for an ultrasound the following week.

Sitting her exam on the Monday, Elena had her scan on the Tuesday, where a sonographer found a 14cm cyst wrapped around her right ovary.

My diagnosis has made me even more determined to train as a doctor and help others

Elena Espinosa Cabrera

Elena said: “They explained that the pain was being caused by the fact that the cyst was twisted around my fallopian tube. It was also growing bigger and needed to be urgently removed.”

Three weeks later Elena underwent a laparotomy to remove the cyst which was then examined to determine if it was cancerous.

In November 2020 Elena was diagnosed with metastatic ovarian germ cell cancer.

Germ cell ovarian tumours begin in the ovarian cells that develop into eggs (germ cells). They are rare and usually affect girls and young women up to their early 30s.

The main symptoms of ovarian cancer include feeling bloated or pain around the pelvis and stomach that is not linked to your period, and struggling to eat because you feel full quickly.

“It’s likely that I’ve had it since birth and the cyst has grown with me,” Elena said.

The pain was being caused by the fact that the cyst was twisted around my fallopian tube

Elena Espinosa Cabrera

“It was a huge shock because, when you’re young, you just think you’re invincible. You never expect to be told you have cancer.

“A month after my first procedure, I had my right ovary removed.

“Afterwards, it was hoped that I was now cancer-free but in August 2021, I started feeling ill a lot.”

Elena had a persistent cough and breathlessness to the point where she struggled to get out of bed.

Seeking advice from her GP, she had an x-ray and afterwards was sent straight to A&E.

Elena said: “I’d convinced myself I had long Covid but it had got to the point where I couldn’t walk up the stairs without stopping every few steps, which isn’t normal for a young person.”

The next day, the then 18-year-old had a biopsy and was informed that the metastatic ovarian germ cell cancer was back.

“Hearing that, I was reassured,” she said. “That may sound weird that I was grateful for that but a second type of cancer less than a year later would have felt even more unlucky.”

Elena was transferred to the Western General Hospital and began emergency chemotherapy.

When you’re young, you just think you’re invincible. You never expect to be told you have cancer

Elena Espinosa Cabrera

She said: “I had the treatment up until Christmas 2021. I had my last session on Christmas Eve. I remember driving home for Christmas feeling really ill. I had extreme fatigue and spent a lot of time on the sofa. I was throwing up around five times a day.

“I had five rounds of even more intense chemo until February then started immunotherapy. I have that every three weeks and travelling down from Edinburgh disrupts my life a bit. Three weeks seems to come around really quickly.

“The immunotherapy gave me menopausal symptoms because of a hormone imbalance. I’ve not had a period in years. I lost my hair during the chemo but that is growing back.”

Elena returned to her studies in September 2022, after taking a year out from university.

She said: “I was really adamant that my life went back to normal as soon as possible because I just want to get stronger again.

“I had immunotherapy after chemo which I finished just after uni started and now I have check-up scans every three months.”

The mass is now inactive and is 2mm in size.

Studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh, Elena says she has been given a unique perspective on her future career.

She said: “I found the hospital environment really interesting, although I was witnessing it from the wrong perspective.”

I was really adamant that my life went back to normal as soon as possible because I just want to get stronger again

Elena Espinosa Cabrera

She added: “I was able to talk to clinicians and specialists, so I learned a lot through the process and I know that’s going to help me so much in my career.

Teenage Cancer Trust put a big emphasis on life after cancer because for a young person, that diagnosis just completely destabilises you and you find yourself playing catch up with the people around you.”

Elena says she is very grateful for the support she received from the charity.

“Without Teenage Cancer Trust, I literally wouldn’t be where I am today. They were an amazing support,” she added.

“Studying medicine can be very triggering for me after what I’ve been through but my diagnosis has really taught me the power of mindset and I got a lot of strength from the support system I had around me.

“I’ve really embraced sharing my journey with others, and helping other people going through similar experiences has given me a lot of purpose.”

For more information on ovarian cancer, visit: www.teenagecancertrust.org/information-about-cancer/ovarian-cancer.