Kenya Smith thought her postpartum recovery was ‘normal’ – until it wasn’t.
“The first symptom was that it was hard to lie on my stomach,” the Utah-based content creator and mom of three recalls of the moment she knew something was wrong with it. his body. “I didn’t have many other symptoms. And then after a few months I had trouble going to the bathroom. My stomach was always bloated – it was constantly bloated and it never shrunk.”
Smith, 27, wasn’t just bloated. Months after giving birth to her third child in March 2022, she watched pregnant. But it wasn’t a baby: it was a 20-pound ovarian cyst. At the time, however, Smith had no idea what continued with her health, and she struggled to find doctors who could give her a straight answer.
No real answers
Smith, who chronicled her frightening experience on TikTok, told Yahoo Life that she first went to her obstetrician for answers. Doctors told her she was “inflamed” after her pregnancy and was sent home with laxatives.
Yet, although the laxatives helped relieve some of the “pressure” she was feeling, her body hadn’t recovered until she gave birth. Smith looked elsewhere for answers 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 obstetrician to ask if anything could cause him problems.
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 wait, Smith took his health care into his 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. Neither test provided any tangible results, and with an ever-expanding stomach, Smith knew time was running out. At this point, she wasn’t sleeping due to the intense pressure and pain, and eating was a challenge, she said, as she “had no room for food”.
After many back and forths with insurance and doctor’s offices, Smith was able to persuade another doctor to do a stomach ultrasound.
“It’s not a baby,” a distressed Smith recalled telling the ultrasound technician. “What do you think it is, if not a baby?”
When the ultrasound technician took a look at Smith’s stomach, Smith said “her face fell.” There was a huge lump in her ovary.
The tech (who Smith says 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, this potential news led Smith to call her husband, “sobbing.”
The next step was to get a CT scan to provide more details about the mass. After an analysis — which included numerous discussions with doctors about referrals and questions from insurance companies — Smith was put in touch with Dr. Jessica Hunn, a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist oncologist. It was then that she finally received helpful answers.
Hunn came highly recommended, not only 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 book an appointment quickly, ultimately making her situation as urgent as Smith knew.
Hunn tells Yahoo Life she was “so impressed” that Smith actively pursued her own care, especially after so many professionals dismissed her pain.
“I think there’s a shortage of doctors who care for non-pregnant patients,” says Hunn. “Obstetricians are very busy with pregnant women who have acute needs, and there are many pregnant women in Utah and the United States. Gynecologists who only attend to the needs of non-pregnant women are many harder to see. Some women have to wait six months to see a gynecologist for a biopsy or an ultrasound, for a basic workup.”
She continues, “Getting surgery with a qualified, trained gynecologist can be just as difficult. I don’t think that’s acceptable, and women need to have better access to care. It’s a problem in Utah, but I see it all over the country as well.”
Hunn recommended surgery. So she first drained the cyst – nearly 10 liters of fluid – 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, which left only a few “little scars”. Hunn told Smith that her fertility was unlikely to be affected by the surgery, as her other active ovary was healthy.
“Going from being pregnant to this, I didn’t even know my body. A lot of people are like, ‘How did you let this go on for so long?’ But being postpartum, your body is so hard to predict anyway. I just didn’t know what was going on,” Smith says. “I shared it on TikTok because I wanted to raise 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?
Women’s health specialist Dr. Jennifer Wider explains that ovarian cysts are “fluid-filled sacs found inside or on the surface of the ovary.”
“Each egg that forms inside the ovary is contained within a follicle,” she told 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 is flushed out, and the follicle shrinks. If the follicle does not release an egg or does not dissipate fluid, it may 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 pathological cyst and is formed by abnormal cell growth – most pathologic cysts are benign, but in rare cases they can be cancerous.”
The exact reason Smith’s cyst grew so large is not known. Wider says there are “no real predictors” as to why a cyst can become massive. One possibility is PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), as it can lead to multiple ovarian cysts, some of which increase 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, an obstetrician at Yale-New Haven Hospital and founder of a women’s health website, Madame Ovary, says ovarian cysts are “very common.” Small cysts often go away on their own and do not need to be removed. Larger ones, such as Smith’s cyst, are much rarer.
“Most of the time, women experience some discomfort; a feeling of fullness in the abdomen or some pain, which would prompt them to see their health care provider,” Minkin says. “Some women really don’t feel much pressure or discomfort. The best way to assess an ovarian cyst is usually an ultrasound of the pelvis.”
Dr. Staci Tanouye, board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist, agrees, saying most ovarian cysts do not cause symptoms. Cysts that grow abnormally, as Smith did, can cause “pressure or pain” – and can lead to other complications, as 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, which is called ovarian torsion,” she explains. “Ovarian torsion can cause severe pain and require emergency surgery.”
If you’re experiencing this kind of pain and suspect a cyst, Tanouye says, “It’s always a good idea to speak with your doctor. If someone already has acute or severe pain, an emergency room visit may be necessary.”
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