JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Allison Fisher had just turned 20 and couldn’t remember the last time she could look down and see her feet.

Or even bend over.

For several years, her abnormally large and bloated stomach, in fact her entire abdomen, had been in the way. The Jacksonville resident had long been overweight — reaching almost 500 pounds — but she knew there was something more at play.

She knew her stomach “should not be bulging or be this hard,” she said. Her longtime pediatrician had told her to just lose weight. She tried but struggled; meanwhile, the pain, discomfort and irregular menstrual cycle remained.

That negative experience with the only doctor she had ever seen — and the pandemic — stopped her from seeking another medical opinion. But in November 2022, after watching her mother battle and recover from cancer, she finally built up the strength to find out what plagued her own body.

The answer from Ascension St. Vincent’s Riverside Hospital? A 104-pound ovarian tumor.

Surgeon used robotic technology Fisher credits Dr. Heather Sharp, an Ascension St. Vincent’s Primary Care physician, and Dr. Martin Martino, medical director of Ascension’s gynecologic oncology and robotic surgery program, for saving her life. When Sharp met with her new patient, she immediately sent her for a CAT scan and booked a follow-up appointment.

The scan showed the tumor.

Fisher cried “tears of joy,” she said. “It was so validating. I was so happy I know what this is.”

But before that next appointment, Fisher experienced a menstrual period so heavy she thought she might be hemorrhaging. She was terrified. An emergency room doctor who had never before seen a case like hers summoned Martino for a consultation.

“When I got to see her, I listened to her story and her mom,” Martino said. He told her, “Let’s see what we can do to take care of you.”

He removed the non-cancerous tumor on Dec. 21 at Ascension Riverside. The three-hour process also included draining 46 liters of fluid from the mass and removal of a smaller cyst from her other ovary. One of his assistants was a robot.

“I’m the one doing the surgery,” Martino said. “The robot offers 3D vision.”

As she recovered, Fisher was jubilant. The surgery, she said, was “life-changing.”

“Incredible! I can see my feet, I hadn’t been able to do that in years,” she said. “It feels amazing to do something normal. I’m able to do everything.”

Still, Fisher knew this was only the first step in her journey to health. The removal of the 104-pound tumor reduced her total size, but she still carried too much weight.

“My body is still messed up,” she said.

Health journey to continue with weight loss surgery Even as a child, Fisher said, she had always been a “fairly overweight person.” But in her early teens, “it started to become apparent that my weight was a real problem. That was the year I went on Weight Watchers,” she said.

“I’ve never liked the way that I look,” she said. “I’ve never been small.”

At age 16, her father died, taking her health insurance with him.

“After he passed was when I really stopped taking care of myself altogether,” Fisher said.

Her menstrual cycle began when she was 17 and lasted for a year. Later, it stopped for a while, then returned abnormally heavy. She never had a regular period. Pain and discomfort, however, were a regular presence. Despite all that, and her mother Eileen Fisher’s urging, Fisher said she “just brushed it off.”

“I kept ignoring it,” she said. “I was scared because of past medical experiences.”

Then her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Though now in remission, she had to undertake a regular schedule of treatment and doctor visits. Since the death of Fisher’s father in 2016, mother and daughter had been there for each other. Her mother had taken action to get well; Fisher realized she was being selfish by not doing the same.

“We’re all that we have,” she said.

Since the tumor surgery, the young woman who was afraid of going to the doctor has been won over by Sharp, Martino and all the other Ascension staff who have taken care of her and her mother.

“Everyone that I have met at St. Vincent’s, they have been so extra eager to help me,” she said. “I never had that kind of care before. It has been so rewarding.”

They are helping her take the next step, gastric bypass surgery, which is the most common form of weight loss surgery performed in the U.S. The procedure involves “creating a small pouch from the stomach and connecting the newly created pouch directly to the small intestine,” according to the Mayo Clinic. “After gastric bypass, swallowed food will go into this small pouch of stomach and then directly into the small intestine” bypassing most of the stomach and the first section of small intestine.

The result limits the amount of food a person can eat and the number of calories their body can absorb. Fisher is undergoing the “pre-op clearance” process for the surgery and awaiting insurance authorization but hopes to have it scheduled before summer.

Prior to her tumor surgery, she weighed 499; immediately she was down to 395. “I’m now steadily losing weight in preparation for surgery, but I’m really hoping to lose anywhere between 150 to 200 pounds afterward,” she said.

“My weight is not where it should be,” Fisher said, and she is ready for the “complete lifestyle change” necessary to make the bypass successful.

She is excited about her new life, not only being able to see her feet but buying new clothes and doing things she was unable to do for years.

“I had gotten to the point,” she said, “where I could not exist as a person.”

Be your own advocate Despite the severity of the tumor, Fisher said she had no regrets about not returning to a doctor sooner.

“Everything happens as soon as it can happen,” she said. “We’ve got to go at our own pace.”

She encouraged others to do the same. If their pace has them in an active doctor search, but they have not found a happy match, keep looking, she said.

“There is somebody out there that is going to listen to you,” Fisher sadi. “Some doctors don’t like to listen to women and bigger people.”

Martino said every woman should be her own advocate. Any woman who has abnormal pain or bleeding, or bloating, he said, should ask for an ultrasound.

As for Fisher, she has no need to hunt for new doctors. Martino is part of her team now. After the gastric bypass, she will have plastic surgery to remove excess skin. And she will be monitored in case another tumor appears.

“She is going to hopefully feel good and be able to do the things she wants to do. I am very optimistic,” he said. “This is why we do what we do … why I love being a doctor.”

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