How to Fight Like a Princess

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month

Fortner_Kelsey with Mom

“My mom is my rock.” Wendy and Kelsey Fortner. Staff Photo.

A week before her 21st birthday on August 21, 2012, Lakeland resident Kelsey Fortner learned that she had a tumor on her right ovary the size of a baseball.

“I got the best birthday present ever,” Fortner said. “A tumor.”

She had had no idea, no suspicion at all. Fortner had always had irregular periods and she had gone to her appointment that day by herself, expecting that the doctor would put her back on hormones to regulate her cycle. A few months before in March, she had undergone a CT scan because of an ovarian cyst and there had been no evidence of a growth.

Fortner’s first question was whether she would be able to have kids. And her next concern was being able to continue her studies at the University of Memphis.

She had just come back from an internship at Walt Disney World in Florida, and wanted to stay on track to finish her degree in Child Development.

Although her gynecologist suspected that the tumor would most likely be a benign dermoid tumor, she recommended that Fortner see a gynecological oncologist, Dr. Todd Tillmanns at the West Clinic. Tillmanns would be able to perform the surgery to remove  Fortner’s tumor robotically and her recovery would only be 3-4 days, rather than six weeks.

So a week after she turned 21, on Friday August 28, 2012, Fortner had surgery at Baptist Women’s Hospital to remove her the eggplant-sized growth.

On the next Tuesday, she was back in class.

On September 11, Fortner went back to the West Clinic for a post-surgical check up. She learned that although preliminary testing indicated that the tumor was benign, Fortner turned out to be in the 5% of the population that had a false negative. Tillmanns told her that she had dysgerminoma. And at age 21, Fortner was a cancer patient. She would need another surgery.

Occurring in less than 1% of ovarian cancers, dysgerminoma is more likely in younger women between 10-25. There are no genetic risk factors or hormone links.

The next few weeks were a combination of university classes, blood draws, and ultrasounds. Fortner’s teachers gave her permission to make up work and complete assignments at home, with the exception of public speaking.  She would have to present all of her speeches before the end of the semester.

In October, Fortner went back to the hospital for her second surgery. This time, her incision would be vertical, from her sternum down. Seeing her daughter was upset about having a large scar,  mom Wendy Fortner told her “I will get you through this; you will always be beautiful to me.”

"Princess Kelsey" at the 2013 Teal for a Cure 5K. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Fortner.

“Princess Kelsey” at the 2013 Teal for a Cure 5K. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Fortner.

“My dad is my superman,” Fortner explained. “But my mom is my rock.” Known as “Daddy’s Princess” (did we leave out that he bought her a puppy after surgery #1?), Fortner’s family and friends began to use the slogan “Fight Like a Princess.”

Three and a half weeks later, she was once again back in class. “ I was walking slow and taking Advil like candy,” Fortner said. She ended the semester with a 3.2 GPA.

And in July 2013, at a routine checkup, her ultrasound tech got very quiet. Tillmanns confirmed that the left ovary, which had been “plump,” was now massive. Her cancer was back.

The question now was whether to remove her uterus with the ovary. A serious decision for a 21-year-old, but as Fortner explains, Tillmanns had always told her that his first priority was to save her life, and then her fertility. Harvesting eggs from a cancerous tumor had never been done, but Tillmanns told her to go immediately to the fertility clinic for a consultation.

“God couldn’t have blessed me with a better doctor,” Fortner said.

Dr. Paul Brezina at Fertility Associates of Memphis estimated that there was a slight chance of harvesting 5-7 eggs. But the procedure—considered optional and not covered by insurance—would be $20,000. After some phone calls, Brezina had secured donations from pharmaceutical companies because Fortner was a cancer patient. He himself, would donate his time. The new amount would be $6000.

Fortner’s mom immediately volunteered to be a surrogate. Her dad, Tommy, wrote the check.

Fortner would fill the first two weeks of August with daily hormone shots and  doctors’ office visits. One day cancer clinic, next day fertility clinic. As soon as her eggs were harvested, she would go immediately into surgery to have her ovary and uterus removed.

After ten days, Brezina told her that it wasn’t working, he would give her until Friday, but then they would stop. On Friday she had twice as many egg-producing follicles and her surgeries were scheduled for the next week. After originally hoping for five, Fortner ended up with 37 frozen eggs.

Expecting to start chemo after her surgery, Fortner had dropped all of her classes for that Fall, which would be her last semester. When Tillmanns told her that he had determined chemo wasn’t necessary, she was mad.

Miraculously, there was one spot open in every class she needed. So in Fall 2013, a week after having a hysterectomy, Fortner was re-enrolling in school.

“My mom took me to class on my first day of kindergarten and the first day of my senior year in college,” Fortner said.

She took 18 hours  and started clinical at LeBonheur Children’s Hospital in October.

On December 14, 2013, exactly three months after her third surgery in a year, Fortner graduated from the University of Memphis.

Right now, at 23 years old, Fortner is cancer-free. She will require check-ups for at least ten years. She works as a pre-K teacher, but dreams of working with Youth Villages or the Child Advocacy Center.

“My message to them would be that there is a light at the end of the tunnel; don’t give up hope.”

September 20 is the 7th Annual Memphis Ovarian Cancer Awareness Foundation’s  Teal for a Cure 5K. For more information, click tealforacure.racesonline.com.

Team Princess Kelsey will be there.

 

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