Alexis Mencos had all the symptoms of pregnancy—then it turned out to actually be ovarian cancer. Freshly 21 and in the middle of getting her degree, Mencos was determined that her diagnosis wouldn’t be a full-stop in her life, but a pause.
I was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer just days after my 21st birthday. My type of ovarian cancer was a very rare form that affects young men and women up to age 21. It was a complete life changer because I had experienced no prior symptoms that would’ve led me to believe cancer was even a possibility.
The way I was diagnosed is also a somewhat unbelievable and rare story. My birthday is in February—2 months prior in December is when everything began. I was enrolled in my junior year at NIU and was on winter break. During that December, I realized my period was late, my boobs were growing and something just felt off. I took a pregnancy test that was positive. I took 3 more tests, all with a positive result. Being only 20 and in the process of completing my degree, I went with a friend to Planned Parenthood for an abortion.
While at the clinic my blood work confirmed that my hCG levels were rising which was a sign of pregnancy, but when it came time to schedule an abortion the ultrasound showed absolutely nothing in my uterus. All they saw was a shadow on the right side, which led them to believe I had an ectopic pregnancy. They told me to go straight to the ER since an ectopic pregnancy can be fatal if a fallopian tube bursts.
As instructed, I went to the ER and was given a methotrexate shot to put a stop to the multiplication of cells, which would terminate the pregnancy. Afterwards, I had to have my blood taken each week to ensure the hCG levels were dropping. Every week my blood confirmed that the hCG levels were dropping at a normal rate, but the week of my birthday my doctor called and told me that my hCG levels had risen to an extremely high number and we would have to schedule an emergency surgery for them to remove the ectopic pregnancy from the fallopian tube. I celebrated my 21st birthday that Saturday and scheduled my surgery for Monday morning.
Luckily in pre-op, I authorized the doctor to take care of anything that was needed while I was already open on the surgery table—good thing I did. After my surgery, I was informed that in fact I was never pregnant at all and I did not have an ectopic pregnancy. In reality, I had a tumor sitting on top of my right ovary.
The doctor removed the tumor intact and also removed my right ovary and sent the tumor for testing. We later found out that my type of cancer mimics a pregnancy. I was in shock but happy to put this whole ordeal behind me—or so I thought. A few weeks later, after dealing with a horrible and painful recovery period, I began coughing up blood. I thought it was just pneumonia from lack of movement after surgery but I was wrong.
My doctor informed me that same week that the results of the tumor being tested had come back cancerous. She did remove it intact but wanted follow-up tests to ensure the cancer hadn’t spread—but it had.
After doing my follow-up tests, my mom took me to the ER due to me coughing up blood. That’s when we were told that the cancer had spread to my lungs. The hospital sent us home with cough medicine and told us to return a couple days later when the oncologist was present. However, the next day, I couldn’t breathe. My mom took me straight to Loyola Hospital in Maywood, Illinois where I was admitted immediately. A few days later, I began an intense journey with chemotherapy that would last about 5 months total.
My life changed completely. I had to put everything on hold. I had to cancel my spring break trip with my friends, drop out of my semester at NIU, move back in with my mom, lose all of my independence and freedom and deal with every horrible side effect of cancer.
My fight with cancer was as horrible as could be. I spent every day receiving chemo for hours on end, and when I wasn’t doing that all I could do was sleep. I had intense chemo five days a week from 8 a.m to 4 p.m., alternating the following week with chemo twice a week. I was the youngest person receiving such an intense form of chemo at Loyola. My doctor told me that if I wasn’t so young, I probably would not have made it.
I lost my hair, experienced body changes such as skin pigmentation, scarred lungs from the bleomycin, neuropathy, nausea, premenopausal symptoms—the list goes on. Funny thing is, my doctor never revealed the stage of my cancer until I was in remission. I knew all along I was stage IV, but he refused to tell me. I think he wanted to keep me hopeful.
I was in treatment from February through June, and in August I was back at NIU ready for life to be normal again. I doubled up on my credits for the semester and in December 2016, I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in corporate communication with a double minor in marketing and Latino studies.
If it weren’t for my friends and family, I wouldn’t have made it. They continuously went out of their way to keep me fighting and make me feel as normal as possible. They even created a GoFundMe account for me, which helped me get back on my feet when I returned to school.
I am now six years in remission. My lungs are scarred but I have no signs of cancer, and my hCG levels remain normal. I now work full time in the corporate world and I have my own home. Sometimes it’s easier to pretend like it never happened, but I like to think of my experience with cancer as just a brief period where my life took a pause.