Mysteries, Misdiagnosis and the Growing Mass: A Familiar Ovarian Cancer Story

For Julie Desotell, it started with a constant urge to use the bathroom.

“I kept thinking I had bladder infections,” she recalls. “But my tests kept coming back negative.”

For six months, Julie made repeated trips to the doctor, each time complaining of urinary pressure and an overall feeling of fatigue. Finally she was referred to an Aurora BayCare urologist and then on to Dr. Peter Johnson, a gynecologic oncologist with Aurora BayCare.

For Dr. Johnson, the diagnosis was fairly clear.

“The CT scan showed this large complex mass,” he said. “In her age group, it’s ovarian cancer until proven otherwise.”

By that point, Julie’s blood counts were so low that she required immediate hospitalization. It took four days of treatment before she was well enough to undergo surgery.

The months of misdiagnosis had taken a toll. Even though an earlier CT scan (taken when Julie first began to report her symptoms) showed a 2 centimeter mass, no one reported any concern over the anomaly. By the time Dr. Johnson removed it, the mass had grown to 10 inches.

Tissue analysis confirmed the diagnosis: stage three ovarian cancer. 

Not This, But That

Unfortunately, stories like Julie’s are common with ovarian cancer.  The symptoms—abdominal pain, indigestion, bladder pressure—are often mistaken for other ailments and shrugged off by patients, family members, and doctors alike.

Each year, more than 22,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Under current mortality rates, two out of every three of these women will die of the disease. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If ovarian cancer is caught early, when it’s still confined to the ovary, a woman has a 94% chance of long-term survival.

A Sense of Humor

Six months after her surgery, Julie has finished chemotherapy treatments. And, according to Dr. Johnson, she shows no sign of the disease.

Julie fully intends to be a survivor and credits Dr. Johnson with saving her life.

“He took action right away,” she says. “This is not staying with me.”

As for the months she lost due to misdiagnosis, Julie remains positive.

“You can’t dwell on that” she says. “You have to think about what’s going to be.”

It makes sense then, that when Julie—a daycare teacher—lost her hair during chemotherapy treatments, she invited her preschool students to color on her head. 

“You’ve got to have a good attitude and a sense of humor.”

Spot the Signs

The symptoms of ovarian cancer are tricky to identify.  And, contrary to common belief, pap smears don’t detect cervical cancer.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer include:

  • Indigestion
  • Bloating
  • Stomach or abdominal pain
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full too quickly
  • Needing to urinate often

“If you have these systems regularly, go to your physician and request a pelvic ultrasound,” Dr. Johnson says. “Tell them you just want to be sure. You have to be tenacious about getting care.”

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