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Woman with ovarian cancer who urged others to know symptoms dies at 43

"Do not dismiss your pain," she warned other women. "Find the expert doctors."
Nadia Chaudhri, seen in a 2019 faculty photo provided by Concordia University, began experiencing symptoms right before the start of the pandemic.
Nadia Chaudhri, seen in a 2019 faculty photo provided by Concordia University, began experiencing symptoms right before the start of the pandemic.Courtesy Concordia University / Lisa Graves
/ Source: TODAY

Nadia Chaudhri, who candidly wrote about the aftermath of her terminal ovarian cancer diagnosis and urged other women to know the symptoms, has died. She was 43.

Her passing was announced Wednesday by Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, where she worked as a psychology professor. The school will lower it flags to half-staff in Chaudhri's honor on Thursday, with the university president calling her "a force of nature."

“I am not afraid,” Chaudhri reassured her social media followers in recent weeks. “I’m surrounded by love and ready for the pain to end.”

She was receiving palliative care at a local medical center after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in June 2020 — symptoms her doctors initially mistook for a urinary tract infection, she wrote.

The cancer had spread and she wouldn't be coming home from this hospital visit, Chaudhri candidly shared on Twitter last month, one of many remarkable messages she sent from her hospital room. She'd been chronicling her ordeal for months, including the day in May she told her 6-year-old son that she was dying.

The neuroscientist had been matter-of-fact about her realities in recent weeks: She couldn't get out of bed without help anymore and was prescribed morphine every four hours.

She shared “precious hugs” with her son, who started first grade in August, welcomed family, friends and colleagues to her bedside, pondered her next life and painted. One of her drawings depicted her “Sun and Moon” — son and husband — placing her ashes at the base of a serviceberry tree to help her boy visualize her wishes, she wrote.

Chaudhri didn’t reply when TODAY reached out for an interview in September. A spokesperson for Concordia University said she was doing very few interviews at the time, but confirmed she wanted to share her story publicly.

Chaudhri recently tweeted details of the “gritty story” that led to her terminal diagnosis, hoping to raise awareness of ovarian cancer:

She started feeling unwell in January 2020 with symptoms that included fatigue, vague abdominal pain, severe lower back pain and a mild increase in frequency to urinate. She was treated with antibiotics for a UTI and underwent a pelvic ultrasound, which showed free fluid in her abdomen and the possibility of a ruptured ovarian cyst. When her symptoms returned in February, her doctor prescribed a different course of antibiotics.

In March, Chaudhri’s abdomen was bloated and she was in moderate pain, but couldn’t see her doctor because of the coronavirus crisis. She felt “incredibly tired,” but blamed the realities of the pandemic.

By April, she was put on a third course of antibiotics. In May, a second pelvic ultrasound showed her ovaries were enlarged and had moved towards the middle of her abdomen.

The radiologist suggested endometriosis as the cause, but when Chaudhri shared the report with an uncle who is a gynecologist, he advised her to get a blood test to check for cancer markers. One of those tests, the CA-125, has normal levels of 35 or below — Chaudhri’s result was 925.

She underwent a laparotomy two weeks later. “They cut me open from sternum to pubic bone. Indeed, I had cancer,” Chaudhri wrote. Surgeons removed the visible tumor during that procedure. It was June 2020, six months after she started experiencing symptoms.

"I am mad as hell that I was misdiagnosed for so long. And mad as hell that there's been minimal progress in the treatment of ovarian cancer," she tweeted.

She received chemotherapy, which worked at first, but by December, her cancer markers started to rise again, indicating her disease learned to evade the treatment. Chaudhri‘s official diagnosis: high grade serus epithelial, platinum-resistant ovarian cancer, she wrote. It led to several bowel obstructions, with the latest one preventing Chaudhri from being able to digest normally. She couldn't eat, so was on IV fluids for weeks.

Chaudhri urged other women to know their bodies.

“Pay attention to fatigue and changes in bowel/urinary tract movements. Make sure you understand all the words on a medical report. Do not dismiss your pain or malaise. Find the expert doctors,” she wrote.

Staying vigilant for symptoms

September was Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Only about 20% of ovarian cancers are found early, according to the American Cancer Society, mainly because the symptoms can be maddeningly vague.

Dr. Jason Wright, chief of gynecologic oncology at Columbia University in New York, said warning signs include:

  • Gastrointestinal complaints.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Bloating.
  • Feeling full and not able to finish eating your meals.
  • Genitourinary symptoms, such as burning on urination, changes in urination frequency and pelvic pain.

“Often, women don't present to their physician when they have these types of symptoms for a prolonged period of time, and thus in the majority of women with ovarian cancer, the cancer has already spread outside the ovary at the time of diagnosis,” Wright, a member of the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance's scientific advisory committee, told TODAY.

It typically spreads inside the abdominal cavity, with nodules growing on the intestines, he noted. They often spread to the lining of the abdomen and produce fluid inside the belly.

There's no routine screening for ovarian cancer and no early detection test. The CA-125 test Chaudhri ultimately received isn’t ordered during routine checkups for women because it's very non-specific, Wright said.

“Any type of inflammation, any type of infection, things like fibroids, endometriosis, all of those things can cause an elevation in CA-125 levels,” he noted.

Regular pelvic exams may help with detection because an OB-GYN can feel a mass on an ovary, but often the cancer has already spread by that point, Wright said. Another tool to find tumors is a transvaginal ultrasound.

More than 21,000 women will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer this year and almost 14,000 will die from it — the fifth deadliest cancer among women, according to the American Cancer Society. Black patients don’t survive as long as white women, with studies suggesting access to health care and other factors playing a role, the National Cancer Institute noted.

Because the warning signs are “very vague,” women have to be their own advocates, Wright advised. If the symptoms persist, get worse or aren’t getting better with other treatments, women should definitely raise the possibility of ovarian cancer with their doctor, he noted.