At the end of 2019, JaKayla Coggins complained of an ache in her abdomen. At first, the 14-year-old and her mother thought menstrual cramps were to blame. But over-the-counter medicine did little to ease JaKayla’s pain.
When the discomfort did not subside, they visited the emergency room where they learned surprising news in January: The teen had ovarian cancer.
“We were just shocked and we cried,” mom Sheena Bowman of Chesterfield, Virginia told TODAY. “Going through this process was really really hard.”
After about four months of treatment, JaKayla is now cancer-free. Her family is sharing her story to encourage others to seek help when ill.
“Listen to your body. Your body is going to tell you (when you’re sick) and go with your instinct,” Bowman said. "If you’re hurting, you’re the only person who knows."
Stomach pain that kept her up at night
What started like bad cramps in December just kept getting worse for JaKayla. Soon, she was taking pain relievers all the time but they did little to help. When the pain kept her from sleeping, her family took her to the emergency room. There, an ultrasound uncovered a huge mass in her abdomen and further tests revealed it was ovarian cancer.
“The doctor was saying that we caught it just in time — at the beginning stage,” Bowman explained. “It was so large he wanted to do the surgery right away because he wasn’t sure if it was pressing against her kidneys or causing any type of damage.”
Pelvic or abdominal pain is often one of the few signs of ovarian cancer. According to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition other symptoms include:
- Feeling full easily or struggling to eat
- Needing to urinate urgently or often
- Back pain
- Pain during sex
- Bowel changes
- Period changes
Doctors removed the cyst, which weighed about 5 pounds, and one of JaKayla’s ovaries. Ovarian cancer is often called the “silent killer” because many people don’t experience symptoms. Even with such a large cyst, JaKayla's stomach wasn't bloated.
Ovarian cancer ranks as the fifth highest leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women ages 35-74, according to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition. While it is more common in older women, younger women do get it and early detection is key for successful treatment.
“The doctor said it was rare in young people, but he said it does happen,” Bowman said.
After a recovering from surgery, JaKayla started chemotherapy. At the same time, cases of COVID-19 were becoming more common in the United States, which made treatment more stressful. At the end of March, JaKayla spiked a fever and had to stay in the hospital.
“They had to test her for the coronavirus and do all kinds of tests just to see exactly why she had a fever,” Bowman said. “It came back negative for everything.”
While doctors successfully reduced her fever, chemotherapy was sometimes grueling for JaKayla. She often felt nauseous, run down and had headaches. She lost some weight, too, and noticed her gums felt sore often. Still, she remained upbeat.
“Throughout this process she has been strong. She hasn’t really shown any type of sadness,” Bowman said. "She has a great personality, (which helped her) through the whole process, always smiling.”
Grappling with ovarian cancer at such a young age was challenging at times. Suddenly, JaKayla had to think of things most don't deal with until they are older. Now, she's worried that losing an ovary (to fully remove the cyst) and irregular periods might mean she'd can't have children.
“She ended up crying at that part. She was like, ‘Well I eventually do want to have kids,’” Bowman recalled.
The doctor said JaKayla should still be able to have children and her long-term prognosis is good. JaKayla will undergo regular check-ups to monitor her health. Bowman made sure to be transparent about all of JaKayal's follow-up care.
“I try to keep everything open for her so she can understand,” she said.
While JaKayla feels excited to return to normal life, she knows that online learning and social distancing will be the norm for a while. On her last day of chemotherapy, friends, teachers and family surprised her with a parade to help her celebrate.
“She started crying,” Bowman said. “It was really a great moment.”