When Ashleigh Baird, from Belfast, went for massage for pelvic bloating, she was told to see her GP at once. She tells Una Brankin about the scary moment doctors told her she might have cancer and needed surgery.
After a year of unexplained pelvic bloating, Ashleigh Baird was relieved that something was finally being done to discover the cause.
The 26-year-old food scientist from east Belfast had been to her GP on five occasions to report the problem, but had never been given a physical examination. It was only after she insisted on one, that she ended up in front of a consultant at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald, with her initial relief turning to dread.
The surgeon, with a Macmillan nurse in attendance, told Ashleigh he expected to remove a 12cm ovarian tumour, with a high risk of malignancy. Instead, he found a complex mass of 20cm on Ashleigh's right ovary, and another of 8cm on her left. Malignant or not, without medical treatment, the larger growth could have led to fatal complications for the young woman.
Yet, medical intervention was only offered after a highly-trained massage practitioner examined Ashleigh's swollen abdomen and urged her to seek an urgent clinical assessment.
"I'd been to my GP five times about the bloating and wasn't examined once," says Ashleigh, who is currently recovering from the surgery at her parent's home, off the Upper Newtownards Road. "I looked pregnant, but was on the pill. I tend to wear leggings and baggy jumpers, so my housemates didn't notice the bloating until I showed them. They were shocked, too. My boyfriend was the most aware of it and he paid for an Arvigo Maya massage, when nothing else worked."
Ashleigh had done extensive research online and had come across Arvigo Maya massage, which focuses solely on the pelvic area. Maya Massage is an ancient abdominal massage which gently manipulates the muscles and connective tissues that hold the pelvic organs in place. The Arvigo technique specifically concentrates on the positioning of the uterus.
"The minute Judith Mulgrew, the therapist, saw me, she knew something was wrong. She believed me and confirmed there was a mass there."
Arvigo Maya massage practitioner, Judith, recalls the shock she felt when she touched Asheigh's bloated abdomen.
"Ashleigh was so swollen and when she told me her symptoms, I stopped the treatment right away and very calmly, so as not to alarm her, and told her to go to her doctor straight away for a second opinion," says Judith, a former Virgin Airlines international business-class massage therapist.
"I suspected a cyst, and you can't be too careful when it comes to the ovaries and the reproductive system."
Ashleigh's symptoms began to emerge in January 2014, at the height, ironically, of the late Una Crudden's award-winning ovarian cancer awareness campaign. The west Belfast mother-of-five had been misdiagnosed with IBS and died from ovarian cancer, at 60, last December.
Ashleigh recalls: "I started having pain during intercourse and got a sexual health check, which was fine. I was starting to have to go to the bathroom two or three times in the middle of the night and there was a lot of pressure. I was worried about my bladder.
"I tried everything, from probiotics to cutting out bread, but as a woman, you just know when it's something else. Women should always trust their intuition and ask for an examination or a blood test, as Una Crudden urged."
If an ovarian tumour or cyst becomes abnormally enlarged, it can cause the ovary to flip, resulting in the ovaries becoming twisted. Without medical treatment, that can lead to death. Furthermore, the rupture of large ovarian cysts can cause massive internal bleeding, shock and serious complications.
"My tummy was always the most bloated in the mornings, but I went to the doctor in the afternoon and it wasn't as bad," says Ashleigh.
"He never felt my tummy once over five visits, but, after seeing Judith, I went back to him and just lay down on the bed and insisted he examine me - and, of course, then he felt this hard mass." Ashleigh was referred for an ultrasound appointment, but went to A&E at the Ulster Hospital to speed up the process.
"I was seen by a girl of a similar age to me and she got me in straight away for the ultrasound. I was lying there and heard her speaking to the consultant about doing more scans. I was told I couldn't go home and had to wait - I was absolutely terrified when I heard that.
"I sat in a room waiting and eventually the consultant told me there was a 12cm mass that could be fine, or could be very bad; he didn't know. I called my boyfriend and my mum and she freaked out."
A further scan revealed a 13cm mass, while blood tests showed tumour markers, although not to the level associated with ovarian cancer. Ashleigh was booked in for surgery on May 5.
"I was told afterwards, when they opened me up, they were all pretty shocked at what was bulging out of me. They measured it with their hands, all 20cm of it, and found another one at 8cms. The big one was full of small, lumpy tumours; the smaller one was full of fluid.
"They took out my appendix and some abdominal tissue in case it was cancer and had spread," she adds. "The consultant asked me if I wanted to have some eggs taken - if it was cancer, I might not be able to have kids. That was one of the scariest parts."
After an agonising wait of eight days, Ashleigh was given the all-clear for cancer. The mass was identified as a huge dermoid cyst, a growth containing an array of solid tissues.
"It's no wonder I was so uncomfortable - and I felt huge," recalls a thoroughly relieved Ashleigh. "They've no idea what caused it. I feel good now, but I can't drive for a while and I can't ride my horse, Ty, in case I'd rupture."
Adding that she now has a flatter stomach, she laughs: "When I was told they were going to take some tummy fat, I thought it would be like a tummy tuck and I'd look amazing. But they didn't take that much.
"Looking back, one of the most horrible things was realising they'd assigned a Macmillan nurse to me, but she was really nice and it was she who rang me to say the tumour was benign.
"The whole thing was awful, but I was more worried about my family, and I was scared about my fertility. I will be able to have kids okay, but if the large growth came back, I might have to have that ovary removed."
Ashleigh has been put on the Microgynon contraceptive pill, which has been shown to reduce the risk of a recurrence of the potentially dangerous dermoid cyst.
"Apart from the biopsy results, the biggest relief I felt was being listened to by Judith," Ashleigh concludes.
"She has been in touch quite frequently to see how I am, and I want to spread awareness of the benefits of what she does - no other massage focuses on the pelvic area - and the fact that women have to listen to their intuition and not be ignored by doctors. I was very lucky, but it could have turned out very badly."
The ancient Arvigo Maya massage was developed by Chicago-born Dr Rosita Arvigo, based on her 10-year apprenticeship with the Maya healer Don Elijio Panti, hailed by the New York Times as "the last Maya master healer in Belize"
Arvigo Maya massage also aids deep relaxation and, according to www.arvigo therapy.com), it has been clinically proven that 40-60% of women who have been unsuccessful in conceiving naturally, eventually did so after a succession of Arvigo Maya massage sessions
Further info: www.skinmedispa.co.uk. tel: 028 9068 1066 or 075 9031 5687