Kenya Smith thought her postpartum recovery was "normal" — until it wasn't.
"The first symptom was that it was hard to lay on my stomach," the Utah-based content creator and mom of three recalls, of the moment she knew something wasn't right with her body. "I wasn't having a lot of other symptoms. And then, after a couple of months, I was having trouble using the restroom. My stomach was always bloated — it felt constantly bloated, and it never shrank back down."
Smith, 27, wasn't just bloated. Months after giving birth to her third child in March 2022, she looked pregnant. But it wasn't a baby: It was a 20-pound ovarian cyst. At the time, however, Smith had no idea what was going on with her health, and she struggled to find doctors who could give her a straight answer.
No real answers
Smith, who chronicled her scary experience on TikTok, tells Yahoo Life that she initially went to her ob-gyn to get answers. Doctors told her she was "inflamed" following her pregnancy, and she was sent home with laxatives.
Yet while the laxatives helped relieve some of the "pressure" she felt, her body had not returned to anywhere close to its shape before she gave birth. Smith looked for answers elsewhere, and found a clue as to what might be going on with her after seeing a post on social media about a woman with fibroids. The woman, Smith says, had a stomach that looked a lot like hers — and so, Smith called her ob-gyn to ask if something of the kind could be causing her issues.
Yet despite only having a baby a few months earlier with the doctor, Smith was told she was no longer a priority — she would have to wait two and a half months for a visit.
Rather than waiting, Smith took her health care into her own hands. She went to an allergist to see if food allergies could be causing the problem. She saw a naturalist for a hair test. She even took a pregnancy test to make sure she wasn't pregnant again. No test provided tangible results, and with a stomach that kept expanding, Smith knew time was of the essence. At this point, she wasn't sleeping from the intense pressure and pain, and eating was a challenge, she said, because she "didn't have room for food."
After much back-and-forth with insurance and doctors' offices, Smith was able to persuade a different physician to do a stomach ultrasound.
"That's not a baby," a distressed Smith remembers telling the ultrasound technician. "What do you think that is, if not a baby?"
When the ultrasound technician did take a look at Smith's stomach, Smith says "her face dropped." There was a huge mass in her ovary.
The technician (who, Smith believes, was trying to help) told Smith that "things that grow this fast are [often] cancer." As someone with a history of cancer in her family, that potential news led Smith to call her husband, "sobbing."
The next step was to get a CT scan to provide further details about the mass. Following a scan — which included plenty of discussion with doctors about referrals and insurance company questions — Smith was connected to Dr. Jessica Hunn, a board-certified ob-gyn and gynecologic oncologist. That's when she finally received some useful answers.
Hunn came highly recommended, not just for her skills as a doctor, but also for her passion for advocating for women's health. Smith knew she had found the right doctor after she was able to schedule an appointment quickly, finally making her situation feel as urgent as Smith knew it was.
Hunn tells Yahoo Life she was "so impressed" that Smith actively pursued her own care, especially after so many professionals had dismissed her pain.
"I think there is a shortage of physicians taking care of nonpregnant women patients," Hunn explains. "Ob-gyns are quite busy with pregnant women who have acute needs, and there are a lot of pregnant women in Utah and in the U.S. Gynecologists who only take care of women's nonpregnant needs are much harder to get in to see. Some women have to wait six months to see a gynecologist for a biopsy or an ultrasound, for a basic work-up."
She continues: "Getting in for surgery with a skilled and trained gynecologist can be equally as difficult. I don't think that is acceptable, and women need to have better access to care. This is a problem in Utah, but I see it across the country as well."
Hunn recommended surgery. So she first drained the cyst — almost 10 liters of liquid — and then removed it, along with Smith's ovary and Fallopian tube.
No cancer was found in the mass — "not even pre-cancer, which was a miracle," says Smith, who was left with just a few "small scars." Hunn told Smith that her fertility would probably not be affected by the surgery, because her other working ovary was healthy.
"Going from a pregnancy into that, I didn't even know my body. A lot of people are like, 'How did you let it go that long?' But being postpartum, your body is so hard to predict anyway. I just didn't know what was going on," Smith explains. "I shared it on TikTok because I wanted to spread awareness. I saw the fibroid thing, with a girl sharing her experience, and I'm so glad she shared that, because I needed an ultrasound … I wanted to repay that experience."
How common is Smith's story?
"Each egg that forms inside the ovary is contained inside a follicle," she tells Yahoo Life. "The follicle is filled with fluid, as a way to protect the egg as it grows. During ovulation, the follicle releases the egg, the fluid gets discharged, and the follicle shrinks. If the follicle does not release an egg or dispel the fluid, it can become swollen, forming a cyst. This is known as a functional cyst and is related to the menstrual cycle. Another type of cyst that is not related to menstruation is called a pathologic cyst and is formed by abnormal cell growth — most pathologic cysts are benign, but in rare cases, they can be cancerous."
Exactly why Smith's cyst grew so large is not known. Wider says that there are "no real predictor factors" to explain why a cyst may become massive. One possibility is PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), as it can lead to multiple ovarian cysts, with some increasing in size. Another potential risk factor is endometriosis, a disorder in which tissue similar to the tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus grows outside your uterus.
In general, Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, a Yale Medicine ob-gyn and the founder of a women's health website, Madame Ovary, says that ovarian cysts are "very common." Small cysts often resolve on their own and do not need removal. Larger ones, like Smith’s cyst, are much more rare.
"Most of the time women will feel some discomfort; a sense of fullness in the abdomen, or some pain, which would prompt a visit to her health care provider," Minkin explains. "Some women really don't feel a lot of pressure or discomfort. The best way to evaluate for an ovarian cyst is usually an ultrasound of the pelvis."
Dr. Staci Tanouye, a board-certified ob-gyn, agrees, saying that most ovarian cysts don't cause symptoms. Cysts that grow abnormally large, as Smith's did, can cause "pressure or pain" — and can lead to other complications, because they can bleed or rupture, exacerbating the pain.
"These cysts can also increase the risk of the ovary twisting on itself and cutting off its blood supply, called an ovarian torsion," she explains. "Ovarian torsion can cause severe pain and require emergency surgery."
If you feel this kind of pain and suspect a cyst, Tanouye says, "It's always a good idea to talk with your doctor. If someone ever has acute or severe pain, a visit to the ER may be necessary."
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