College Student Diagnosed with Cancer After Doctors Dismissed Her: 'People Need to Speak Up for Themselves'
Jessica Sanders was 15 when she started experiencing constant sharp abdominal pain that made it uncomfortable to exercise or use the bathroom. The pain was so bad that she often had to sit out at soccer practice or go home early from school.
At the time, Sanders — from San Carlos, California — was already "intimidated and scared" of going to the OB-GYN as a teenager, but she made an appointment to figure out the cause. However, she says what followed was years of her pain being dismissed by doctors.
Now, the 21-year-old San Diego State University student is opening up to PEOPLE about being diagnosed with ovarian cancer after years of doctors telling her she's "fine," sharing the importance of women advocating for themselves and their health.
"At first, they would tell me it's just period cramps, it's hormones, you're pregnant. Another time it's a UTI, it's a bladder infection. A doctor also said that my pants are too tight and not to wear thongs because they were causing irritation and pain," Sanders recalls. "One of the doctors really rubbed me the wrong way when he said I probably wasn't wiping myself the right way. So that was really frustrating and that was kind of all the care that I got until I was 20."
"My parents have always been super supportive but they didn't know what was wrong with me either," she adds. "The doctors were saying nothing's wrong with her, she's fine, so I stopped complaining about my pain because I was dismissed. I just started to feel like I was crazy."
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Courtesy Jessica Sanders Jessica Sanders
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It wasn't until Thanksgiving 2021 that Sanders couldn't tolerate the pain anymore, struggling just to eat breakfast with her family. Assuming she would be dismissed again, she went to the emergency room. This time, an ultrasound revealed that she had a 17-centimeter cyst on her right ovary and would need surgery to remove it.
While in surgery, doctors learned that the cyst had ruptured and Sanders had a liter of blood in her body. They also discovered a tumor wrapped around her right ovary, which ultimately had to be removed — something Sanders says she still hasn't fully processed.
Courtesy Jessica Sanders
Sanders was ultimately sent home to recovery and was feeling some relief as her pain was subsiding. However, on Dec. 8 2021 she was called into the doctor's office and told that she had small cell carcinoma of the ovary, hypercalcemic type — a very rare, aggressive form of cancer.
"I just thought, 'This would happen to me after all this time. I'm gonna die.' I just broke down," she says of learning the devastating diagnosis.
Sanders explains that she regrettably spent a lot of time on Google looking up survival rates for her type of cancer and, because it's so rare, she felt hopeless with every result. Sanders' type of ovarian cancer affects younger women more often than more common types of ovarian cancer, but most are diagnosed late.
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"Even with my family's support, I felt so lonely because I now have this disease in me and I can't control it. It was really frustrating and shocking, especially being a super healthy person," Sanders says, sharing that she started cancer treatments immediately.
"I was stuck there," she continues. "I felt very alone because I'm just a student. All my friends are partying in college and I'm sitting in a chair, surrounded by a bunch of people a lot older than me with cancer."
Sanders ultimately went through six rounds of chemotherapy — three full-day sessions per week, every three weeks — before she was declared cancer-free in April 2022. She then had a stem cell transplant, which she called a "terrible time" in her lengthy treatment plan.
"I was throwing up constantly, I couldn't get out of bed and I couldn't eat for two weeks, I couldn't brush my teeth, or bathe. I couldn't do anything," she recalls.
Though Sanders has come a long way and is doing well today, she admits that the disease has taken a significant toll on her body.
"I went back to school, I started training with my soccer team again, obviously very slowly. But I'm still recovering from stem so I feel it all the time," she says, noting other symptoms like brain fog, nausea, fatigue and neuropathy. "I feel trapped in a 50-year-old body almost because of all the things that I went through. So it's definitely slowed down my body a lot more, which is hard because I was such an active person."
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Courtesy Jessica Sanders
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The frustration behind her delayed diagnosis is what inspired Sanders to share her story on TikTok and give advice to others who have also had their symptoms dismissed.
"People need to really speak up for themselves and not be afraid to tell doctors when they're wrong and tell them to keep pushing for answers," she urges. "This isn't just happening to me, it's happening to women all over the world."
Sanders' experience also inspired her to launch Fight for Female Health, an organization that sells T-shirts and sweatshirts to raise money for the Small Cell Ovarian Cancer Foundation. She uses her platform to raise awareness about early detection and the symptoms of ovarian cancer.
"As females, we are very much overlooked because of our reproductive organs. A lot of my friends don't even want to go to the OB-GYN because they're scared and they don't know what questions to ask," Sanders tells PEOPLE, adding that she'll continue to speak out on social media and share any information she has.
"If I can help one person, I'll post every day."