Aussie woman reveals 'weird' symptom before 'nightmare' rare cancer diagnosis

Fiona May
Fiona May was diagnosed with a rare cancer. Photo credit: Supplied to 7News

A woman who battled a rare cancer has revealed the strange symptom which led to her "nightmare" diagnosis. 

Fiona May, a former nurse from Bunbury, Western Australia, was diagnosed with gestational trophoblastic disease in 2020 after suffering from a range of debilitating symptoms for months. 

Speaking to 7News, May, now 48, said she first began experiencing exhaustion, irregular bleeding and weight gain - despite her decreasing appetite - in September 2019. A month later she decided to visit her doctor, who initially believed her symptoms were due to perimenopause. 

However, an ultrasound in November detected an 8cm benign uterine fibroid - a non-cancerous tumour - in the wall of her uterus, she told the outlet.

Because of the size of the tumour, May - then 44 - was told she needed to undergo a hysterectomy, or the surgical removal of her uterus. The procedure was booked for early January 2020, just days after she was due to return from a trip to Melbourne with her husband Jason, then 46.

"Things just slowly progressed, but at that time I was flat out at work, I was really busy with family… I thought it was just life, and I think women tend to suffer in silence, especially when it is of a personal nature, like mine was - you just soldier on," she told 7News. 

After being assured it was safe for her to travel, May and Jason arrived in Melbourne shortly after Christmas for a New Year's holiday with her family. But while staying at her brother's home, May noticed her symptoms had worsened - recalling extreme fatigue, swollen ankles, fingers and toes, and regular bouts of vomiting. She was also once again experiencing spotting and irregular bleeding. 

One day, she found she was breathless and struggling to climb the stairs. 

"I was out of breath and I thought, 'This is weird, this is not normal'," May said.

Fiona May in hospital.
Fiona May in hospital. Photo credit: Supplied to 7News.

Barely able to climb the stairs, May's sister-in-law took her to a local GP to undergo a blood test. May later received a call that would prove to be life-changing: there were signs of clotting and she needed to go to the emergency department. 

"That was pretty much the start of my nightmare because I spent my whole holiday in hospital."

However, doctors were unable to locate the clot, May said - and tests showed she was also close to heart failure. She was transferred to a cardiac ward, where she underwent numerous blood transfusions.

"My heart started failing at this time also, so I was put into a cardiac ward and was monitored 24/7. They were more worried about my heart at this stage because they didn't know what else was really going on," she told 7News.

After returning to a stable condition, May was discharged and given the all-clear to travel back to Western Australia to recover. Once she was back in Bunbury, she was told the planned hysterectomy wouldn't be able to go ahead due to her ill health.

As she met with a number of specialists, May also started to badly haemorrhage every few nights - including one incident where she "passed a huge clot that looked like a liver".

She was once again rushed to the emergency department, where it was revealed she had a blood clot in her lung - a discovery she said sent the doctors into a "panic".

May was transferred to Perth and placed in the intensive care unit, where it was found that the tumour in her uterus had almost doubled in size in a little over a month, measuring about 15cm.

She was later told that the tumour was in fact not benign - but a rare, malignant cancer called gestational trophoblastic disease (GTD).

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, GTD is a group of rare tumors that form during abnormal pregnancies. It's caused by abnormal cells growing inside the uterus after conception, causing a tumour to develop. While some GTD tumors are malignant or have the potential to turn cancerous, the majority are benign, or non-cancerous.

May was told that the tumour had formed in her uterus due to a failed pregnancy, which she said she would never have suspected due to her history of bad periods. She was also informed that the blood clot in her lung was due to the cancer.

Speaking to the outlet, May said she had looked "nine months pregnant" before it was discovered that the tumour was cancerous.

"I actually had no more room [in her abdomen]. It was getting ridiculous."

Two weeks after she was admitted to hospital, May's ovaries, cervix and uterus - along with her tumour - were successfully removed, and she underwent six months of chemotherapy to prevent the cancer from spreading. 

"It was brutal… but I wanted to live and be around for my family. I was too young to die," she told 7News. 

After her chemotherapy was completed, May was informed she would need to undergo close monitoring for a five-year period - of which she is currently three-and-a-half years through. 

Now, May is offering her advice to other women experiencing similar symptoms - with her first suggestion being to "write a list of questions" before you see a doctor or specialist, so no detail, big or small, is forgotten. 

May has also urged women to "trust your intuition" and not be afraid to push for further testing or seek another opinion if something doesn't feel right.

"Know when you need to push it further, and say 'No, something's really not right here' and go get another opinion, if it comes to that."