At the start of the pandemic, Christine Sayegh contracted COVID-19. After a few weeks of treating her symptoms at home, she improved. But she had trouble breathing when she walked short distances. She was worried that COVID-19 was affecting her lungs. But she soon learned of an unexpected cause of her breathing problems – ovarian cancer.
“If I didn’t think that COVID had destroyed my lungs, I never would have gone to the doctor,” Sayegh, 45, of Yonkers, New York, told TODAY. “I would have just been like, ‘I’m out of shape trying to get up the stairs, that’s why I’m having trouble breathing.’ I never thought I had cancer.”
When Christine Sayegh found it difficult to walk without difficulty breathing, she worried that COVID-19 had damaged her lungs. The real cause was surprising. Thanks to Christine Sayegh
She shares her story to raise awareness of ovarian cancer. It is often referred to as the “silent killer” because its symptoms, such as bloating or back pain, can be mistaken for other conditions or ignored.
“The symptoms are very basic, so anyone can feel them. You don’t think about cancer because of the abdominal swelling,” she said. “The type of person I am, I wouldn’t pay any attention to those symptoms at all…I think the majority of women are like that. They take care of everything that needs to be done. They don’t check or pay attention to their body when it’s yelling at them.”
COVID-19 and persistent respiratory problems
On March 19, 2020, Sayegh developed symptoms of COVID-19 and lost her sense of taste and smell. After struggling to find a test, she eventually found out she was positive.
“I was very scared,” she said. “I was just really, really concerned about it.”
New York City was in the middle of a wave and finding answers was difficult. But her cousin is a doctor and explained what medicines she had to take.
“I had symptoms for a while, especially that cough,” she said. “I had a fever, but it has died down. The breathing thing died away. But the aches and pains, I had muscle problems and then the cough.”
The cough lasted for weeks and felt incredibly severe, “almost like throwing up”.
“I couldn’t walk… 25 feet without being out of breath and I’m like, ‘That’s OK. That’s because I need to walk more.’ So I started going outside and I couldn’t catch my breath,” she said. “I was nervous that my lungs were being destroyed by COVID.”
Christine Sayegh underwent a hysterectomy and chemotherapy to treat her stage 3 ovarian cancer. Although she had some complications, she is now cancer free and feeling well. Thanks to Christine Sayegh
After a few weeks of trying to walk and struggle Sayegh, she went to see her doctor. They performed a CT scan on her lungs to look for a possible blood clot. Instead, they saw liquid build up beneath them.
“That pushed against my lungs, that fluid on my diaphragm, which made it impossible for me to breathe,” she said.
Follow-up tests revealed she had cancer, but it wasn’t lung cancer. It was ovarian cancer and they found a tumor on her ovary and a lesion on her diaphragm.
“It was a complete shock,” she says. “(There is) no family history of ovarian cancer.”
Sayegh was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer, which meant the difference between “living or dying.”
“By the time you get to stage 4, it’s already more spread out,” she said. “The spread is greater, which greatly reduces the chances of survival.”
dr. Jeannine Villella, chief of gynecologic oncology at Lenox Hill Hospital and Sayegh’s physician, said people often learn about the diagnosis of ovarian cancer in later stages because they don’t realize their symptoms are signs of cancer. Common symptoms of ovarian cancer include:
Bloating. Feeling full early. Changes in bowel habits. Changes in bladder habits.
“With non-specific symptoms, they think it’s something else and that’s the problem with ovarian cancer,” Villella told TODAY. “For example, they arrive late to the gynecological oncologist.”
The support of friends and family made it easier for Christine Sayegh to undergo cancer treatments. Thanks to Christine Sayegh
Risk factors include having a family history of ovarian cancer and not having children. Still, it’s essential that people talk to their doctor if they notice a change, even if it seems as minor as bloating. According to the American Cancer Society, only 20% of ovarian cancers are detected early. Although detected at an earlier stage, approximately 94% of patients live longer than five years after diagnosis.
Villella encourages people to visit their OB-GYN regularly and pay attention to any changes they notice in their bodies.
“Women tend to neglect themselves,” she says. “They’re often busy working, taking care of kids. They don’t realize it’s been three or four years since they went for their health exams and those things are very important.”
While a symptom such as bloating is often not a sign that a person has ovarian cancer, Villella said it’s important for doctors to consider ovarian cancer when evaluating patients.
Sayegh underwent six rounds of chemotherapy and had a full hysterectomy. She had complications with an infection after the surgery and was off work longer than she had planned.
“I don’t think I was prepared mentally or physically,” she said. “I still have a lot of aches and pains, but they tested several things. I did an MRI, ruled out a lot of things and so it’s just about time.”
Villella said Sayegh is “doing very well”.
“She responded very well to the disease. She has no signs of illness and she worked through her entire treatment,” she said.
Life without cancer
In July, Sayegh learned she was cancer-free. She is on a maintenance chemotherapy drip every three weeks and her hair has started to grow back. She says the love and support of her family and friends has helped her through her experience with cancer.
“My blessings are the people who surrounded me,” she said. “It’s so important that you have solid people to help you through something like this.”
While Christine Sayegh is on maintenance chemotherapy, she is cancer free and doing well. She is even happy that her hair is growing back. Thanks to Christine Sayegh
She hopes her story will encourage people to listen to their bodies and seek help when something isn’t right.
“Ovarian cancer has been labeled the ‘silent killer’ because the symptoms are not obvious. They can be anything, you have a stomachache,’ she said. “It’s important that people pay attention to some of these basic symptoms that we think could be anything because you get treated earlier and could save your life.”