Casey Ward was working as a paramedic in Charleston, South Carolina, when she was struck by a sharp pain in her upper right abdomen.
The now 33-year-old said she went to the ER, where clinicians ran a few tests but told her she was likely just constipated. But that diagnosis “didn’t match the pain,” she said, or where in her belly it festered.
For months, the pain came back in waves, and doctors eventually settled on “a bad gallbladder” as a diagnosis instead, Ward said. But no tests indicating gallbladder issues came back positive. By then, she’d become pregnant with her second child, so even if it was her gallbladder, a removal surgery had to wait.
Throughout the pregnancy, Ward’s pain intensified. She said she barely left the house because it hurt to walk. Even a deep breath would spark sharp pain. Ward said she begged doctors to operate. “They’re like, ‘No, we don’t want to hurt the baby,'” she said. “It was a very long nine months.”
Two months after her daughter was born, Ward went to the emergency room again with unbearable pain. She couldn’t wait for the scheduled surgery, just two days later. This time, an ultrasound spotted a tumor the size of a grapefruit, she said.
Even then, the doctor assured Ward it was likely benign, she said. He said: “You’re young. You’re healthy,” Ward recalled.
Two weeks later, the biopsy results came back as cancerous. It had spread from her bile duct to her leg and lung. One doctor gave her anywhere from a day to six months to live. “I was just having such a normal day, and I was just shocked because you never think that’s going to happen to you at 31,” Ward said. “You feel like you stop breathing.”
Now, more than two years later, Ward continues treatments and shares her story to urge people to demand answers when they think something is wrong with their body. “If we don’t advocate for ourselves, no one will,” she said.
Insider has reviewed Ward’s medical records documenting her cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Ward’s treatments prevent her from being as hands-on with her kids as she’d like
Bile-duct cancers affect the small tubes connecting the liver to the gallbladder and intestines, the Mayo Clinic said. They’re often diagnosed in late stages, which makes them difficult to treat. The five-year survival rate for those that have spread to other organs is 2%.
Doctors told Ward the hormones from her pregnancy may have accelerated the cancer’s spread. Ward said her love for her daughter, now 1, overshadows any regrets about not getting an earlier diagnosis.
“It’s either me going back and trying to save my life and never have her or have her,” Ward said. “And I would never want to not have her.”
Ward underwent intravenous chemotherapy for more than a year, but she switched to oral chemo when she started to develop fluid in her chest. The side effects, such as dizziness and sores on her skin, mean she’s never gotten on the floor to play with her kids. She’s thankful her husband takes on that role. “I’m the cuddle parent,” she said.
Ward is working with Mayo Clinic physicians who plan to consider her for various experimental treatments if her current one stops working. “It’s always the mentality of, ‘We just need to make sure we’re fighting for your life,'” she said.
If Ward is able to return to work as a paramedic, her experience will come with her, she said, adding, “There’s nothing like understanding a person’s situation than going through the situation.”
More young women are speaking up about ‘medical gaslighting’
Research showed that women are more often victims of what’s colloquially termed “medical gaslighting,” or when medical professionals dismiss a person’s symptoms, deny tests or treatments, and ultimately misdiagnose them.
More and more are speaking out about the life-altering consequences. Lois Walker, a 37-year-old mom in the UK, said she made 20 calls and multiple ER visits because of severe pain but was told she had health anxiety. She said it wasn’t until she underwent a C-section that doctors discovered tumors in her ovaries, abdomen, and lymph nodes.
For 23-year-old Chloe Girardier, it took five months and seven doctor’s appointments for doctors to take her persistent cough and weight loss seriously, The Sun reported. She had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
And 20-year-old Georgia Ford said her pain, spasms, vomiting, and weight loss were dismissed as being “all in her head.” She had stage 4 kidney cancer.
Women are “not being believed, and that’s causing significant delays in care, misdiagnosis, late diagnosis, ineffective treatment, and ineffective triaging,” Dr. Garima Sharma, an internal-medicine physician and cardiologist at Johns Hopkins previously told Insider. “Women are paying a very heavy price.”