At the start of the pandemic, Christine Sayegh contracted COVID-19. After a few weeks of treating her symptoms at home, she improved. But she struggled to breathe when walking short distances. She worried that COVID-19 impacted her lungs. But she soon learned of an unexpected cause of her breathing problems — ovarian cancer.
“If I didn’t think that COVID had destroyed my lungs I would have never gone to the doctor,” Sayegh, 45, of Yonkers, New York told TODAY. “I would have just been like, ‘I’m out of shape trying to come up the stairs that’s why I’m having a hard time breathing.’ I would have never thought I had cancer.”
She’s sharing her story to raise awareness of ovarian cancer. It’s often referred to as the “silent killer” because the symptoms, such as bloating or back pain, can be mistaken for other conditions or ignored.
“The symptoms are very basic so anybody could feel them. You don’t think cancer because of abdominal swelling,” she said. “The type of person I am I would totally not pay attention to those symptoms … I think a majority of women are like that. They take care of everything that needs to be done. They don’t check or pay attention to their bodies when it’s screaming at them.”
COVID-19 and lingering breathing problems
On March 19, 2020, Sayegh started having symptoms of COVID-19 and lost her sense of taste and smell. After struggling to find a test, she eventually learned she was positive.
“I was very scared,” she said. “I was just really overwhelmingly anxious about it.”
New York City was in the midst of a surge and finding answers was difficult. But her cousin is a doctor and explained what medications to take.
“I had symptoms for a while, especially that cough,” she said. “I had fevers, but they died down. The breathing thing died down. But the aches and pains, I had muscle problems and then the cough.”
The cough lingered for weeks and felt incredibly severe, “almost like throwing up.”
“I couldn’t walk … 25 feet without being out of breath and I’m like, ‘That’s OK. That’s because I got to walk more.’ So I start going out and I could not catch my breath,” she said. “I was nervous that my lungs got destroyed by COVID.”
After a few weeks of Sayegh trying to walk and struggling, she visited her doctor. They conducted a CT scan on her lungs to possibly detect a blood clot. Instead they saw fluid built up beneath them.
“That’s what was pushing against my lungs, that fluid on my diaphragm, not letting me breathe,” she said.
Follow-up tests revealed that she had cancer, but it wasn’t lung cancer. It was ovarian cancer and they found a tumor on her ovary and a lesion on her diaphragm.
“It was a complete shock,” she said. “(There’s) no family history of ovarian cancer."
Sayegh was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer, which meant the difference between “living or dying.”
“By the time you’re hitting stage 4, it’s already spread more,” she said. “The spread is more significant so the chances of survival decrease tremendously.”
Dr. Jeannine Villella, chief of gynecologic oncology at Lenox Hill Hospital and Sayegh's doctor, said people often learn about ovarian cancer diagnoses in later stages because they don’t realize their symptoms are signs of cancer. Common signs of ovarian cancer include:
- Feeling full early.
- Changes in bowel habits.
- Changes in bladder habits.
“With nonspecific symptoms they think it’s something else and that’s the issue with ovarian cancer,” Villella told TODAY. “That’s how they get to the gynecologic oncologist too late.”
Risk factors include having a family history of ovarian cancer and not having children. Still, it’s essential that people talk to their doctor if they notice a change, even if it seems as minimal as bloating. According to the American Cancer Society, only 20% of ovarian cancers are found early. Though when detected at an earlier stage, about 94% of patients live longer than five years after diagnosis.
Villella encourages people to visit their OB-GYN regularly and pay attention to any changes they notice in their bodies.
“Women tend to neglect themselves,” she said. “They tend to be busy working, taking care of children, they don’t realize that it’s been three or four years since they went for their health maintenance exams and those things are very important.”
While often a symptom like bloating is not a sign that a person has ovarian cancer, Villella said it’s important for doctors to consider ovarian cancer when they're evaluating patients.
Sayegh underwent six rounds of chemotherapy and had a full hysterectomy. She had complications with an infection after surgery and was off work longer than she planned.
“I don’t think I was mentally or physically prepared,” she said. “I still have plenty of aches and pains but they’ve tested multiple things. I’ve done an MRI, ruled out a bunch of things and so it’s just going to be time.”
Villella said that Sayegh is “doing very well.”
“She had an excellent disease response. She’s without evidence of disease and she was working through her entire treatment,” she said.
Life without cancer
In July, Sayegh learned she was cancer-free. She’s receiving a chemotherapy infusion every three weeks for maintenance and her hair started growing back. She credits the love and support of her family and friends as helping her through her experience with cancer.
“My blessings are the people that surrounded me,” she said. “It’s so important that you have solid people to help you get through something like this.”
She hopes that her story will encourage people to listen to their bodies and seek help if something feels wrong.
“Ovarian cancer is labeled the ‘silent killer’ because the symptoms are not blatant. They could be anything, you have a stomachache,” she said. “It’s important that people pay attention to some of these basic symptoms that we think could be anything because you getting treated earlier on can save your life.”