Meredith Wise is a senior at Northwestern University majoring in Pre-med and English. Her interests in women’s health and fertility started in high school when she shadowed an infertility specialist. She never thought that fertility would ever become an issue for her young friends but when one, Gracie, had tumors discovered on her ovaries, that all changed. Here is Gracie’s story:
Meredith Wise-The idea of not being a mother one day had never crossed nineteen-year-old Gracie Mahan’s mind.
Gracie, a sophomore at Claremont McKenna College in California, took having children for granted until this past summer. In July 2011, Gracie went to the doctor with complaints of pain during urination, thinking that she would be diagnosed with a urinary tract infection. After several appointments with different physicians, she was forced to contemplate losing her fertility when she was diagnosed with bilateral ovarian dermoid teratomas.
According to the online medical dictionary Medline Plus, dermoid teratomas are tumors made up of skin and skin-like tissues, including teeth and hair. Gracie’s tumors had all three, and they affected both of her ovaries.
The tumors required immediate surgery. The surgeons planned to remove the tumors using a minimally invasive technique, but they warned Gracie that the tumors could require large incisions. If the tumors alone could not be removed, the surgeons would have to remove Gracie’s ovaries. “The doctors were very clear in telling me this,” Gracie says.
After informing Gracie of the possibility of needing to remove her ovaries, her physician told her that the tumors might be cancerous and, if this were the case, that she would need to undergo treatment following the surgery. Gracie feared the results: “If both of my ovaries were removed, I would be completely infertile, and I would begin menopause as a nineteen-year-old girl. Panicked by this thought, I immediately started doing research on infertility.”
Gracie had to face tough decisions that few college students have to make. Her doctors told her that freezing her eggs would not be a viable option, but that she could freeze embryos. Without hesitation, her doctor asked if she had anyone in mind to use as a sperm donor. “I immediately burst into tears,” Gracie says. “I think that this was the day that made the situation very clear to me.”
Gracie considered in vitro fertilization (IVF), and her boyfriend was more than willing to use his sperm to help Gracie preserve her fertility in the case that her ovaries had to be removed. “It was surreal to be having this conversation at nineteen,” Gracie reflects. After careful thought, Gracie and her family decided that the cost of IVF was too great for a procedure that might not even be successful. “My biggest fear was waking up one morning as an infertile twenty-eight-year-old wanting a baby and wishing that we had done more.”
Fortunately, Gracie’s surgery was successful, and her surgeons were able to remove the tumors without removing her ovaries. The tumors were benign.
Though Gracie’s surgery went as well as hoped, the experience has affected the way she views her body, her fertility, and her future plans for motherhood. Gracie points to the uniqueness of an experience like hers saying, “As college girls, we work incredibly hard to ensure that we don’t get pregnant, thinking that it would be the worst thing to ever happen to us…I was faced with the opposite fear, that I would never be able to have a baby.”
The threat to her fertility that Gracie experienced has caused her to reexamine her priorities. “I think that you truly learn how precious something is when you almost lose it.” Gracie is grateful that her surgery did not affect her fertility, and she promises she will not squander her ability to have children. “During this experience I discovered that to me, life’s importance lies in having a family.”
Gracie’s battle with ovarian tumors has inspired her to remind other women to pay attention to women’s health and fertility research and to actively pursue maintaining their own health. “As young women, issues concerning fertility may seem a distant worry. However, I think that is incredibly important for young women to be both aware of the resources that are available to them and cued in to their own female health.”