Noel Rademacher noticed the first sign of her ovarian cancer in August 2012 when she struggled to zip up her wedding dress. The dress had fit perfectly only a few weeks before, but now it was extremely tight around her abdomen even though she hadn’t gained any weight.
A week later, on her honeymoon in Bora Bora with her husband, Thomas, Noel started feeling intense pressure to urinate even when her bladder was empty.
“It was like a bladder infection without the pain,” Noel said. “But, at 35 years [old], I wrote it off as something that happened as I got older.”
The final sign came back home during her favorite Pilates class, when she was suddenly overcome with so much pain and nausea that she had to leave.
Now, six years and two kids later, Noel speaks with HealthCentral about what she’s learned about listening to her body’s warning messages.
HealthCentral (HC): What happened after you left your exercise class that day?
Noel: I sat in my car. I was thinking of a conversation I’d recently had with my good friend whose brother had passed away. All I could remember was her telling me, “If he just would have listened to his body, if he just would have listened to the signs, he would have had a chance.”
I stayed in my car until my doctor’s office opened because I knew if I moved, I would just keep putting off making an appointment. Then I called and kind of fibbed. I told them I had a bladder infection, because I knew if I didn’t make it apparent that I needed to see somebody that day (Thursday), I’d have to wait until Monday.
HC: After the doctor found the mass on your ovary, were you worried about your ability to get pregnant?
Noel: At the time, I didn't think about having kids; I didn't think about Thomas and me and our future as husband and wife. While waiting for the biopsy results, I had just 48 hours to sit with the knowledge. There was something inside of me, and I had a bad feeling that it wasn't just a benign mass. I had a feeling.
When the mass proved to be cancer, my doctor went over what the surgery would entail — removing my appendix, fallopian tube, and left ovary. And by the way, the doctor said, she couldn’t see my right ovary because of the size of this mass on my left. She said that if they found something massive in the right ovary, they might want to perform a complete hysterectomy and needed to know that Thomas had permission to make the decision if it came up.
HC: What do you remember from the day of surgery?
Noel: When I woke up, Thomas’ eyes were bloodshot, and he couldn't say much of anything. My doctor told me it was the hardest surgery she’d ever done. They found I did have a tumor in my right ovary as well.
All Thomas had said when they told him was, “Can you save her uterus? She wants to be a mom.”
While the doctor was with me, these little chimes sounded through the hospital. I asked what they were for, and her eyes welled up with tears. She said that when the chimes went off it meant a baby was just born.
HC: After surgery, what was the process that brought your girls into the world?
Noel: I struggled with the idea of in vitro fertilization (IVF) because my only option was to use an egg donor. It made me wonder if it was meant to be. I was in a quandary, but my husband said to me, “I'm with you for the rest of my life, and I don't want you to look back and think what if… or that we should have at least tried. I don't want you to end up with regret.” So I went ahead with the IVF, and our daughter Charlotte was born in July 2014 and our second daughter, Catherine, in December 2015.
HC: How has your experience with ovarian cancer changed you?
Noel: When I first noticed symptoms, I thought, this is just normal; I'm 35, I'm getting older. But it wasn’t, and that's how ovarian cancer can become such a killer. Symptoms are just chalked up to menopause, and by the time you get to the place where you go see a doctor, it's too late.
After treatment, I worked as a clothing store manager and I spent all day talking to women trying on yoga pants. Talking about ovarian cancer and our bodies was one of my big things. I will talk to anybody about what happened to me, and if that leads one person to say, “Oh, something is feeling weird, and maybe it's not ovarian cancer, but I should get it checked out,” then it’s worth it. Because you have to be able to speak up for your body; you’re only given one.