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Living with cancer: 'My treatment brought on the menopause at 15 and left me infertile'

The i logo The i 15/11/2019
a person holding a suitcase © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd

As part of a new series called Living with cancer, i is sharing people's stories about how the disease affects their life and relationships, both practically and emotionally.

© Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd

When Ellie Waters felt a lump in her buttock aged 14, she ignored it for seven months. She was too embarrassed to mention it to her mother.

And when the sporty teen collapsed during a fun run after suffering a dull ache in her leg, her GP thought she'd just torn a muscle and suggested she take six weeks rest.

But then she began losing weight, became constipated, and was struggling to sit down because of the painful lump, her mother took her back to the doctors. They suspected an abscess, but a biopsy brought devastated news: Ellie was suffering a rare cancer of the soft tissue called alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma.

a person posing for the camera © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd

The now 18-year-old had intense treatment for 18 months (Photo: Ellie Waters)

Because it was aggressive and classed as stage 4, and had spread to the lymph nodes in her groin, she had to have intense chemotherapy and radiation on her pelvic area, which has robbed her of the chance to have children.

a person standing posing for the camera © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd

The treatment brought on the menopause at just age 15. "My prognosis was bleak. I wasn't told at the time but my parents were told I had just a 20 per cent chance of surviving beyond five years," said the now 18-year-old. "I feel lucky to be here."

a woman standing next to a brick wall © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd

Gruelling treatment

Ellie said that at 14 it never crossed her mind her symptoms would be cancer.

"I'm quite a fiercely independent person, and so when my symptoms developed I just thought I'll deal with it.

"It was terrifying when I was told it was cancer. I didn't have anyone in my family who had had it and just thought people died from it."

Her doctors explained they couldn't remove the lump without causing huge disfigurement. She said the treatment – 18 months of chemotherapy and 28 radiotherapy sessions – took a huge toll.

Ellie pictured right after finishing her last radiation session (Photo: Ellie Waters)

"With the chemo, I was throwing up still when I had nothing left to throw up. I couldn't eat so I had a feeding tube. I suffered with foot drop and needed a wheelchair. The fatigue was overwhelming. I was like a baby needing naps around the clock. I lost my hair.

"It was quite isolating as the rest of my friends were just getting on with normal teenage things."

Not warned about fertility effects

Ellie says that she began treatment without having been warned about the effects on her ability to have children.

"Due to the late stage of my cancer, treatment started straight away with no conversation about fertility.  I always had an inkling that the treatment might make me infertile as I’d heard that that was a side effect, but I wasn’t told initially."

Just before her radiotherapy, it was brought up as a side-effect. "To be told that I could be infertile was a shock, as I knew that I wanted to have a family at some point."

The aspiring doctor is helping to promote the work of the Teenage Cancer Trust (Photo: Teenage Cancer Trust)

Ellie didn't ask too many questions at that stage, until she'd finished her radiotherapy. "I asked my doctor on a scale of zero to 10 – zero being completely infertile and 10 being very fertile – where am I? My doctor said zero.

"Not only were my eggs damaged, but I was also told that the radiotherapy had damaged my uterus to the point that I would never be able to carry a child to full term.

"It's upsetting but you just go into survival mode. My cancer was aggressive and I just wanted to make it out alive.

"I'm ok now with not having my own biological child. I'm quite excited about adoption and would love to be able to give a child a home who hasn't got one."

Read more:

Living with cancer: 'My symptoms were dismissed as IBS at age 27 – and now it's terminal'

Dream of being a doctor

Ellie says she has been inspired to go into medicine (Photo: Ellie Waters)

Going through the menopause at 15 has been a struggle for Ellie. Although she had to repeat Year 10 at school while battling the symptoms, she managed to do well at her GCSEs, and is now studying A-Levels.

"I was in the classroom at school and everyone was in jumpers being winter and I was having hot flushes and fanning myself.

"I had night sweats, my bones ached and I was so fatigued. I'll be on hormone replacement therapy for the rest of my life but I think the benefits outweigh the risks."

Now Ellie has aspirations to work in medicine. "I had wanted to be a female Alan Sugar, and get ahead on business, but I want to be a doctor and I've been applying for medical schools.

"It's directly because of my experience of having cancer. I'm driven by wanting to help people and I'm fascinated by medicine.

"Having cancer has been an ordeal but beating the disease has taught me I am stronger than I ever knew."

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