Sunday sit down with… Jessica Pearson
After being diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer at just 25, Jess is now fighting to save other women’s lives so we caught up with her this World Ovarian Cancer Day.
‘If I can even just save one young woman from the same fate as me, then I can finally maybe sleep and breathe a little easier, even smile again.’
For years Jessica Pearson knew something wasn’t right. Now at the age of just 26, she’s experienced what most women wouldn’t face in their lifetime.
When Jess’ periods stopped for more than six months, alarm bells rang. Although her periods returned, they were irregular, light and painful to the point of making her faint in public. Soon things started to get noticeably worse and Jess became severely ill.
Being unable to stay awake, suffering from severe nausea and abdominal swelling were just a few of her countless symptoms. And although she put it down to being incredibly stressed at the time, deep-down, Jess knew something wasn’t right.
Jess went to her GP several times, but it wasn’t until March 2020 that she had a CA125 blood test, followed by an ultrasound, which turned her world upside down. They found two 20cm tumours and she received the devastating diagnosis of an aggressive form of ovarian cancer.
‘Being told you have cancer is indescribable,’ says Jess ‘I was so scared, I had no idea how or why this had happened. My boyfriend was sobbing beside me, and the doctor and nurse were looking at me like I was going to die. As a lab scientist, I knew how ovarian cancer was described as ‘the silent killer’. At that moment, I believed I wasn’t going to make it to 26. Everything I was going to miss out on flashed before me.
‘I started apologising to my partner; I felt incredibly guilty for putting him through something so awful. I panicked about my mum, what this news would do to her. I felt sick and lightheaded. I kept begging the doctor to take it out as quickly as possible. When I walked out, I was completely silent – I didn’t even cry. I was just numb. Cancer is a monster and I quickly realised I was headed for the biggest fight I would ever face. And I genuinely didn’t know if I was strong enough.’
The next day, Jess had a CT scan before being rushed into surgery. Her mobility was getting worse and she struggled to walk and bathe herself due to the 6 litres of fluid on her abdomen –which explained why she was in so much pain. But things took another bad turn when her surgery didn’t go as planned. Sadly, her surgeon ended up removing huge portions of her abdominal lining, as well as her appendix, omentum – performing a total hysterectomy. Jess went into intensive care and spent a week in hospital recovering.
After further testing, doctors found that the cancer became more aggressive with oestrogen. So, although she had already had a hysterectomy, Jess had to have further treatment to stop producing any more of the hormone. This meant over the last year, she was plunged into early menopause: causing bad hot flushes, migraines and loss of hair. But things didn’t stop there. Jess has since been diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy, meaning she has debilitating nerve pain, especially in her hands and feet, and is now disabled due to both the pain and the loss of feeling in her joints and extremities.
‘The physical pain pales in comparison to the mental and emotional anguish that my family and I have suffered over the past 18 months,’ says Jess. ‘My entire future stopped when I woke from surgery and was told they performed a full hysterectomy. My dreams of having a family, this perfect future I had imagined with my boyfriend, all crashed down and part of my heart broke. Since then mentally, I’ve been grieving. With everything that comes with that grief too – anger, depression, denial – I’ve felt all of it.’
Unfortunately, Jess’ type of ovarian cancer is very rare and the NHS doesn’t actually have a treatment regime for it. So, Jess researched herself and requested the treatment she is now on, which goes alongside the endless other medications necessary to deal with the side effects of cancer treatment. But tragically, Jess was recently told by an oncologist that her cancer has spread and it’s expected that it will return within 3-5 years. So her treatment options are limited.
‘Obviously, this news was absolutely devastating,’ says Jess. ‘I wouldn’t say I’ve found any way to cope. I think the reality is that you never do, at least not every day. If I didn’t have my partner, I don’t know how I would have survived, because I was utterly incapable of caring for or even walking by myself. Seeing friends and family and being around them played a huge part in learning to cope.
‘I make more effort to enjoy every day left, not dwell on negativity. Focus instead on positivity and the radiant, supportive, beautiful people by my side. I have been truly awed and thankful at the outpouring of support I have received from so many people in my life. Having cancer has meant the loss of my future, but I have gained a new future with my boyfriend and two beautiful dogs. My cancer has spread everywhere, but I’m still here and fighting, I’m thankful every day that I am here.’
Jess has received help from charities Target Ovarian Cancer and Maggies, who offered her and her family support and helpful advice. Wanting to give something back, Jess set up a fundraiser for Target to raise money for their vital fundraising, petitions, awareness work, funding treatment research and drug trials. Through her traumatic experiences, Jess wants to make a difference by spreading awareness to help support other women going through this and to prevent others from missing symptoms.
‘I started to speak out about what happened to me, because I couldn’t stop thinking about all the other young women that could be oblivious to what was happening in their own bodies,’ shares Jess. ‘My message to young women is to trust yourself – you’ll know when something isn’t right. If you can feel something different down below or in your gut, then insist on a blood test, smear test or ultrasound and find a GP that takes you seriously. Don’t allow yourself to be told that period pain is ‘normal’; you know it isn’t if it’s limiting your daily life.’
‘I was told, like other young women, that painful periods are just part of life and to take some paracetamol. When that didn’t work, I was given codeine at 15 years old, which was monstrous. I’ve contacted my secondary school to improve their female reproductive health teaching, and I’m constantly looking to share my story with the hope of reaching as many women as possible, explaining the symptoms and tests associated with this form of cancer.
‘Ovarian cancer is detected with a simple CA125 blood test. It’s controversial, as it can be raised by other factors, such as the menstrual cycle. But it shouldn’t be as raised as it was for me (1740) and can be a rapid indicator that something is seriously wrong. Even if it isn’t cancer, it still needs to be investigated, so either way, I believe CA125 tests should be used as screening, just like smear testing.
‘Ovarian cancer is most often found in women over 40 and there I was at 25 – diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer. Age means nothing; it doesn’t stop cancer. Just because cancer is more common at certain ages doesn’t rule out anomalies. All I can say is, get involved in changing these legislatures to help protect younger generations and stop this gross neglect from killing more women.
‘I just want to make as much of an impact as I can,’ Jess continues. ‘I don’t believe young women’s female reproductive health education is good enough and I don’t believe GPs take young women seriously. Maybe if enough of us speak out, higher powers will be forced to listen, if I can save even just one young woman from the same fate as me, then I can maybe sleep and breathe a little easier, even smile again.’
As part of wanting to spread awareness, Jess and her friends set up a GoFundMe page to raise funds for the few treatments to help her but clinical trials are only available internationally or privately.
If you would like to donate, visit Jess’ fundraiser page here.