Real life: The woman diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 12 years old

Nicole Graney is the youngest Australian woman to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer and says she's lucky to still be alive.
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Halfway through year seven in 2010, Sydney schoolgirl Nicole felt a hard lump in her tummy after she fainted at school and developed back pain and a urinary tract infection, so her worried mum Karen took her to the doctor.

“I had an ultrasound and then an MRI scan in the following days,” says Nicole, who’s now 20. “They showed up a 16cm mass on my right ovary. I was booked in for surgery at Liverpool Hospital the very next day.”

At 12, Nicole was more interested in mucking around with her new Ingleburn High School friends, playing Angry Birds and listening to Delta Goodrem and Kylie Minogue on her iPod Touch than worrying too much about her health – so the burden of fear about her condition fell mostly on her mother.

“Mum’s a radiologist and knew a little bit about what my potential prognosis could be,” says Nicole. “She burst into tears when she saw the lump on my scans.”

Now 20, Nicole was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at just 12 years-old. (Image: Phillip Castleton)

Youngest ever

Nicole’s surgery removed a solid tumour from her right ovary and fallopian tube. In the week between her ultrasound scan and surgery, the tumour had grown to 20cm.

Two weeks after her surgery, doctors confirmed that Nicole had ovarian cancer – and was Australia’s youngest ever patient with the condition.

“After the operation, in July 2010, I had to start six rounds of chemotherapy straight away,” recalls Nicole. “I remember just crying to Mum, not in worry over my diagnosis as such, but because I knew I’d lose my long, strawberry blonde hair.”

During the treatment, Nicole lost her hair and gained more than 20kg. (Image: Supplied)

For six gruelling months, Nicole travelled from the family home she shared with her mum, stepdad Darren and older sister Alyssa to Sydney’s The Children’s Hospital at Westmead for week-long chemo treatments.

“I lost my hair after the second round – and gained more than 20 kilos because of the steroids I had to take as part of my treatment, too,” says Nicole.

“I’d gone from being young, energetic and healthy to becoming a sickly ‘cancer kid.’ I was tired and nauseous all the time, and I hardly recognised myself in the mirror.”

With no family history of ovarian cancer, doctors were at a loss to explain why Nicole had developed the disease at such a young age. “They think a cell mutation possibly triggered by puberty might’ve caused it,” she says.

Because Nicole was so young, Nicole says that she wasn’t completely aware of how serious her condition was – but has since learned that unless she underwent extensive chemotherapy, there was a very good chance that her cancer could return and be much more difficult to treat.

Nicole is passionate about raising awareness about ovarian cancer. (Image: Supplied)

Missing so much school and changing so dramatically physically was particularly tough for Nicole.

“My best friend at the time helped me though my treatment but I became clingy when I went back to school and she told me to make new friends,” she says.

I was heartbroken, and said to my mum, ‘This hurts worse than any of my cancer treatment.'”

Once her chemo was finished, Nicole says she felt lost. “I no longer had the support of the friends I’d made in hospital, and at school I was still ‘the cancer kid’. I felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere.”

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Long-term effects

While Nicole’s treatment was successful – last year she moved from being in remission to yearly check-ups – the diagnosis has had long-term effects.

“I’ve been told that because my right ovary and fallopian tube was removed, it will be very difficult for me to fall pregnant,” she says. “I’m looking into freezing eggs from my left ovary so that I might be able to conceive one day, but it’s very expensive.”

Despite the ongoing effects, Nicole says going through cancer at 12 has made her very resilient.

“I haven’t let it stop me from achieving my dreams either,” she says.

The flight attendant’s dream is to become a commercial pilot. (Image: Phillip Castleton)

A keen flyer, Nicole became a flight attendant with Jetstar eight months ago. “I love it,” says Nicole. “My goal is to become a commercial pilot one day.”

When she’s not busy working, or hitting the gym, Nicole spends time with her “very supportive” boyfriend of two years Peter.

“Life is good,” she says. “I went through something incredibly tough at a very young age but I’ve come out the other side, with more compassion and resilience,” she says.

“I don’t take my good health for granted either – I know how lucky I am to be here.”

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