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I Thought I Was Gaining Weight, Then Doctors Found a 20-Pound Cyst on My Ovaries

No matter how much I worked out, my stomach refused to shrink. Turns out I wasn't gaining weight, I was just carrying a fluid-filled nightmare.
Illustrations by Dian Permatasari

A version of this story originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.

The first "expert" to figure out that something wrong with me—to notice that I was actually ill and in desperate need of emergency surgery—was my aesthetician. That's right, the same woman who would complain about her boyfriend as she ripped the hair off my body faster than I could scream "Leave him!" was the first to figure it all out.

"Girl, are you pregnant?" she said as she waited for the wax on my thigh to dry.


I immediately shot her a nasty look of disbelief. How dare she? I looked down and placed my hand on my, honestly, larger-than-usual stomach with a sense of embarrassment and shame. I mean, yeah, it was weirdly larger than it was only a few weeks ago. And, of course, the thought had crossed my mind—was I really pregnant?

"OK, well, I stopped coming here as often and, maybe, I've gained a few pounds since we last saw each other," I stammered as a reply.

"No, no, no," she said before grabbing her own love handles. "This is fat. What you have is not what I have."

She dropped the conversation and I left the salon scared and trembling. I walked around the corner to an ice cream bar—I was living in Seattle at the time—where I hoped to catch a friend, Milo, on his shift. I explained what just happened as he made a fresh batch of waffle cones. "Honestly?" Milo said. "Fuck that rude-ass bitch."

We laughed. And then I called Planned Parenthood to ask about a pregnancy test. The older woman on the line was calm and professional when she explained that, without insurance, the test would cost ten times what I thought it would: $200! I nearly choked on my salted caramel ice cream. "But it was $20 when I went two years ago!" I exclaimed.

Well, the woman explained, this pregnancy test was going to be a lot more comprehensive. It wasn't as simple as just peeing in a cup. So before she scheduled the appointment, she wanted to know why I was so worried. Was I being "unsafe?"


"Well, no," I said. "But I do feel bad about my stomach."

She seemed annoyed. To be fair, weight gain isn't the most telling sign of a pregnancy. She told me to just go to Walgreens for a standard home pregnancy test and then hung up.

Nearly two years after that anxiety-inducing salon trip, my stomach has remained the most-puzzling part of my entire body. I never ended up going to Walgreens for that pregnancy test, instead choosing to brush the entire conversation off as a simple case of weight gain.

When I moved back to Jakarta more than a year ago, I began exercising heavily, way more than I ever did while living in the United States. I also started eating healthy and even tried to mimic one of our editors' vegetarian lifestyle, ordering lunches from the same places he did, even though it definitely hurt my wallet a bit. Whatever, I thought as I stared at my shrinking bank account, the stomach must go—whatever the cost.

All these healthy habits worked. Just not where I wanted them to. My arms became toned from all those barbell workouts. For the first time in my life, I could see my cheekbones. The numbers on the scale went down as well. But my waist? Stubbornly, it wouldn't budge. Still, they say that the stomach is the last fast to go, so I sucked it up, and continued packing a second outfit for the gym each day.

Throughout all of this, the pregnancy comments kept coming. Women everywhere took notice of my belly bulge and figured it was safe to make a comment. I was congratulated about what everyone thought was a child growing in my belly while I got my nails done. While I had my body hair waxed. While I had my head shampooed. It even happened one time at a music festival, which is probably the weirdest place to be congratulated for your totally-not-real pregnancy.


I learned to just brush it off. Sure, it looked like I had swallowed a basketball, but it wasn't a baby. It was just some really stubborn fat, and, for a while, I felt comfortable just telling people, "Ah, I'm just heavier than usual right now." Until one day, two months ago, I wasn't.

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I finally went to the hospital. My mother insisted that she should come along, telling me that I would surely need her. As we waited to see the gastroenterologist—the stomach doctor—I was sure that there was something wrong with my belly. I had started to suffer from pretty regular gastric issues, and here in Jakarta, where the food and the water can make you sick if you're not careful, the gastroenterologist is a pretty popular doctor.

We needed to arrive hours before he did in order to secure our space in the waiting room. An hour had passed before I was finally called in. The doctor was pretty annoying. He wouldn't look me in the eye and instead spoke directly to my mother. When I took off my cardigan so he could check my abdomen, he decided to go on a long rant about how my tattoos were potentially the cause of a viral infection (they weren't).

But then, when I lifted my shirt just enough so he could see my stomach, the mood in the room changed. The doctor, suddenly no longer concerned about his lecture on tattoos and viral infections, told me that I would need to undergo a lot of tests. His face looked pretty serious, which did little to calm my already-rattled nerves.


The only thing I really remember about the surgery was how cold the room was. Well, that and the blue hallways of the surgery wing. The last time I saw that particular shade of blue was in 2004, when I willingly went on minor hajj (umrah) with my family to Mecca, but only after my father promised a quick detour to Egypt before we returned home. All I really remember from that trip was the spiced rice and bland, flavorless fish, and the blue of the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Alexandria. I remember marveling at that cobalt blue as the man towing my banana boat drove farther from the shore, eventually flipping the thing over and sending me into the cold, choppy water. I cried then, as if all those swimming lessons and that life jacket somehow couldn't stop me from drowning in the sea.

I stared at that same shade of blue and cried, alone, in the surgery wing. The nurses wouldn't let her come with me, but my mother told me there would be other patients back there to keep me company. She was wrong. I was totally alone and really, really scared. I thought back, to that trip to Alexandria and how I had kept myself afloat out there on the sea. I was small then. I can deal with this too, I told myself.

The doctors and nurses came in one by one, all of them gossiping around me as they worked. The anesthesiologist soon arrived and he too took notice of my tattoos. He needed to know if I used "relaxers," or downers, while partying. He said he needed to know to judge my tolerance levels. "It's OK if you do drugs. I just need to know and, I mean, you do have tattoos."


My eyes felt heavy and I blacked out. A short while later I woke up mid-surgery. I couldn't feel anything below my sternum and the moment I finally gathered up enough strength to speak was the exact moment they were ready to pull the cyst from my abdomen. The lead surgeon looked at me and asked, "do you want to see it?" The nurse then handed me his phone.

It was the ugliest thing I've ever seen. It was like a monstrous sack of flesh, something straight out of a Cronenberg movie. The doctor said there was liquid inside the sack, something like 9 liters worth, or almost 20 pounds. The sack itself was this disgusting, veiny, semi-translucent pink thing that looked sort of like a hairless cat's skin. It was alien-like and totally something I wanted out of my body. For a second I worried that it had a heartbeat. I felt like I was about to cry. Should I be checking it out? Looking for its 10 fingers and 10 toes?

All of that was running through my head but my mouth was still heavily sedated, so instead of saying all of that, I just said, "Oh. Gross." So that's what was making my stomach look so big? Suddenly, all those weightlifting and cardio workouts felt like a waste. You can't sweat away a 20-pound sack of veiny, liquid-filled hell, can you?

The next couple of days were a blur as my mom's friends took turns entertaining my mother and telling me about their own reproductive woes. At the time, those stories made me feel depressed. It felt really unfair that, at 22, I was going through the kinds of medical issues of women in their 50s.


It was even worse that I had to share a room with a woman who was pregnant, and in her third trimester. Most of the women on my floor, including my nameless roommate I only spoke to when I needed the air conditioning turned off or on, had to endure terrible pain as well. But they left with a baby, a child who would grow and love them and be with them forever. I was leaving with a scar and some photos of a nauseating lump of flesh.

But mine, too, will be with me forever. The doctors might have cut this giant sack of skin and pus from my body, but it was only the first of probably many little gifts from my new friend endometriosis—a mysterious medical oddity I was diagnosed with that will stick with me for the rest of my life. Endometriosis is a condition where tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows in other places in the body, usually in the pelvic cavity; it affects at least 10 percent of women. The nodules or lesions that form can sometimes grow into cysts on the ovaries. My doctor said the endometriosis caused the cyst and there's a good chance I'll develop more.

My jealousy of new mothers eventually waned, and while I'm still pretty weak—too weak to exercise—I am getting a lot of enjoyment out of eating. No longer does my stomach push against a fluid filled cyst in my abdomen after I eat too much. The next six months will be busy with hormone therapy to help prevent more cysts that will affect my mood, my weight, and my skin in ways I could never predict.

Eventually I stopped feeling ill. I don't feel bad about my stomach anymore. But that may change, and when it does, I will hopefully remember to listen to my body—and all those women in the salon—a lot closer than before.

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