'Doctors Told Me My Ovaries Were "Dead" After Cancer. I'm So Glad I Didn't Listen To Them'
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Featured Image Credit: Gemma Isaacs
Gemma Isaacs knew she had cancer when she went to hospital to get her results. She could tell it was bad news the moment she sat down, just by the mournful look on the nurse's face.
"I literally just turned to my husband and told him he could marry someone else," she recalls to Tyla. "He told me to shut up. But I just knew in my gut I'd got cancer."
Although a fit and healthy 31-year-old, Gemma had a family history of cancer - and while she was undergoing testing for the BRCA1 gene mutation, she had an inkling something wasn't quite right.
Despite not having a lump or any of the common symptoms of breast cancer, Gemma's intuition led her to make an appointment with a breast consultant, which saw her diagnosed with the deadly disease just days before her BRCA1 diagnosis was confirmed.
The 12 hour wait before getting diagnosed and seeing whether the cancer had spread were "the longest 12 hours of her life", but when it was confirmed to Gemma that her cancer was localised, she knew she could beat the disease for the sake of her husband Daryll and daughter Ella - who had just turned one at the time.
"I hated the idea of people looking at me and thinking I looked ill, so I was trying so hard to keep myself fit and at the gym," Gemma says. "I kept training throughout my diagnosis and when I was at radiotherapy.
"I'd get up in the morning and go to the gym, and in my head I was like, if I can beat that I can beat cancer. That's how I likened it."
But the fight against cancer was only the start of the battle. The intense treatment, followed by a double mastectomy in April 2019, led Gemma to struggle with her mental health, and she was left wondering whether she'd be able to have more children in the future.
With the BRCA1 mutation meaning she was at a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer in her lifetime, Gemma was also having to face the difficult choice of getting her ovaries removed altogether - something that was incredibly difficult for her to consider.
"I was told when I was having chemo that there was a very good chance you may not be able to have children. Chemo kills everything on your body," Gemma explains.
"For me, that was always the hardest thing. I had taken drugs that were meant to put my ovaries to 'sleep' during treatment, but they only have a 25 per cent success rate."
It was bad news when Gemma went to see a gynaecologist to assess her chances of having another baby.
"He scanned me and told me my ovaries were dead, basically, which was a really big blow," says Gemma.
"It was the worst thing someone told me the whole time I was having my treatment. Because I was like, I'm going to be hopeful, maybe they'll be light at the end of the tunnel. But to hear him say that I was like...right, that's a real shi**er.
"I remember that day and I met a friend in the evening, and we went to a pilates class. She was just like, you're the most determined friend I've got in my life, go and prove them wrong."
So that's exactly what Gemma did - determined to reverse her negative fortunes, she read up on the links between veganism, plant-based food and fertility.
"I thought, what's the worst that can happen to me now?" she says. "It's only going to be healthy. So I went plant-based in July.
"I went back for a scan in November and the gynaecologist was like, I literally don't know what I'm looking at, these are the ovaries of a different person. He said the only thing I could put it down to is being vegan, because there was no reason for my ovaries to come back on.
"But he still said I wasn't going to fall pregnant. He was categorical about it. So I told him, 'just watch me.'
"I carried on being vegan and I got my menstrual cycle, which was mad. I remember being on the tube and I just started crying. My husband asked what was wrong with me and I said I didn't know, and then that night I got my period back. I was being flooded with hormones that I hadn't had for so long."
It wasn't until Christmas 2019 when Daryll noticed something was different with Gemma.
"He asked what was up because I was being really vile and moody," she laughs. "I had a pregnancy test upstairs so I decided to sneak out and take it.
"Nothing happened after a minute, so I threw it in the bin. Then it occurred to me I probably should give it a little longer so I went back to pull it out the bin, and it was positive. It was a Saturday night and I was meant to have a night out with my friends in like 20 minutes time, so I had to rush to Boots and take another test.
"My initial reaction was just panic! I was told don't get pregnant, I can't get pregnant and here I was, being told everything I was told not to do. I phoned my mum and she said 'oh, f***!'
"Then I had to go on a night out with my mates and pretend everything was fine! It was so surreal."
Despite Gemma's previous health concerns, her pregnancy was relatively straightforward, welcoming baby Jack in August last year.
"The only issue was the fear of Covid," she says. "I have a weakened immune system, so it could make me really sick. My doctors were fearful of having me in for appointments with coronavirus being so prevalent. I was constantly scared of something going wrong, but my pregnancy was fine."
With Gemma now happy with her family and "miracle baby" Jack, she decided to get her ovaries removed in a bid to eradicate any potential cancers caused by her BRCA gene. It was a tough decision for her to make.
"Ideally I would have liked more children, but the other side of me is like - I wasn't in control of my breast cancer diagnosis, and I can be in control of this with my ovaries," she says. "I got them removed because I want to be a step ahead. But it was a really hard decision to come to.
"The thing was BRCA is that everything feels like a loss. I've lost my choices, I've lost my hair. But I want to close my door on this. Otherwise I'm always going to be seen as Gemma with cancer. I want to take back control of that narrative. I have to see the glass as half full and be happy with what I've got."
Because she went through such huge life choices so young and on her own, Gemma decided to co-found BRCA Sisters, a support group helping young people affected by genetic cancers.
"A lot of the problems I had when going through cancer was every pamphlet they give me had a picture of like an old lady being comforted by her husband, or someone completely unrelatable to you. There was no-one really talking about that and I was like, I need to champion this because there was no one else I could really relate to," she says.
"I spoke to my mum's friend who had had cancer and she was like: 'oh it made me feel sh***y, it put me into the menopause but I was on my way there anyway.' And I was like, well I'm not. I'm only 31, I don't want to be menopausal, I'm in the prime of my life. It's a really unexplored area and it's unchartered territory.
"I didn't want people to pity me or tilt their head when they looked at me, so kept my Instagram up to date with my treatment and I posted my story online. It led to me eventually meeting up with other women with the BRCA gene. It's been really helpful. And then finding more and more people who have BRCA, you feel less alone in all this. We started doing BRCA meet-ups and it was amazing. Women come from three hours drives and will just come to pubs for an evening because they had never met another soul with BRCA.
"It's not a death sentence to have a BRCA diagnosis, but it's something you have to make decisions on that most people don't have to make decisions on so early in life. Our hope is that we can help more people find support and young people with cancer or BRCA to find other people to relate to because there's so little out there."