This Is What It’s Like to be a 24-Year-Old Bodybuilder Living with Ovarian Cancer

McKenna Princing Fact Checked
Cheyann Shaw lifting 85 lbs this past June, less than a year after cancer surgery.
Courtesy of Cheyann Shaw

Ovarian cancer is more common in older women, but Cheyann Shaw was diagnosed at 23 years old. She traveled from Florida back to her home state of Washington so she could reunite with family and receive treatment from UW Medicine and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Doctors told her she had low-grade serous ovarian cancer, which affects mostly young women. It is resistant to chemotherapy, but also less aggressive and more treatable overall. Still, stage 4 ovarian cancer isn’t easy to beat. A major surgery and many rounds of chemo later, Shaw is still fighting. This is her story, as told to McKenna Princing.

I’ve been an athlete my entire life. Growing up, I was a complete tomboy and played every sport. I played some college basketball but tore my ACL twice and couldn’t play anymore.

I fell in love with the atmosphere of bodybuilding and competing when my boyfriend (now husband) Kaleb and I went to his brother’s shows. After six months of preparation, I competed in my first bodybuilding show in October 2015 and placed sixth.

Things changed in the summer of 2016, when I was 23. While preparing for my next show, I started having stomach issues: I would have a cup of coffee and throw it up, then be sick for a week. I lived in Florida at the time and kept going to the emergency room. Doctors kept telling me I was constipated and sending me home with laxatives, but I had this instinct—I knew something was wrong.

In July 2016, a bump appeared right above my pubic area—I thought it was an ovarian cyst. It started to become painful, so I went to my OB-GYN and she scheduled an ultrasound. She ended up scheduling surgery just to see what was going on, but when she opened me up she saw that there was cancer everywhere in my abdomen.

I was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer on August 3, 2016. I was told that I would do three months of weekly chemo with every fourth week off. After three months, I would get a CT scan to see if the cancer shrunk; if it did, they would then go in and operate to remove the cancer. If it didn't shrink, they would keep me on chemo. No one told me what my prognosis was.

Cheyann Shaw before her cancer diagnosis (left) and after her major surgery to remove the cancer (right).
Courtesy of Cheyann Shaw

My Cross-Country Journey Toward Recovery

I’m originally from Bonney Lake, Washington, and Kaleb is from Washington, too. Our families live here and we had heard that UW Medicine was the best place to be for cancer care. So just a month after my diagnosis I moved back to Seattle and began receiving care from Renata Urban, M.D. She wanted to do one month of weekly chemo to see how the cancer would respond. After a month, the cancer hadn’t shrunk, so she knew it was time for surgery. She was very honest and told me she wasn't sure if she could get all the cancer at once, but would do her best.

Last Halloween, Dr. Urban removed my ovaries, uterus, appendix, spleen and part of my bladder and colon. My care team put in a temporary ileostomy bag, a bag connected to a hole in my abdomen to collect poop. They also removed five tumors—one that weighed five-and-a-half pounds—and I had to have four blood transfusions. I was rediagnosed as stage 4 because of how the cancer had spread to my spleen. Dr. Urban was able to get all the tumors out of my abdomen but found some in my lymph nodes, so I’ve been doing chemo. She said it could be untreatable but that she would throw everything at it.

My ileostomy bag is gone now, and I recently had a PET scan and nothing lit up. My lymph nodes still look inflamed, so I have another scan soon to see where everything’s at. If everything looks good, Dr. Urban will keep me on Avastin, a drug that prevents tumor growth. She told me I could have a stable disease and live with it for the rest of my life.

Doctors aren’t sure what caused my cancer. Breast cancer does run in my family, but I tested negative for both BRCA1 and BRCA2, the breast cancer genes. My great-grandmother and her sister both had breast cancer. My great-grandmother was misdiagnosed before being brought to the University of Washington Medical Center—the same place I ended up.

Cancer Won’t Stop Me

I truly think that being in the fitness world saved my life. I know my body and was able to catch that bump early enough before the cancer spread even more.

Before surgery, I weighed 130 pounds; after my diagnosis, at my lowest, I got down to 97. After my big surgery I had to take a few months off at the gym, but I’m going back now. It’s my safe haven. It’s an hour of my life where everything else in the world just shuts off.

I look back at pictures of me before cancer and it makes me sad, but it fuels a fire in me to get back to where I want to be. I use the photos as motivation to help me stay positive. Even though I did lose all the muscle, I can still get it all back.

I’ve learned how to listen to my body. I always pushed myself to go, go, go, but now I know what my limits are.

Cheyann Shaw with her dog Russell.
Courtesy of Cheyann Shaw

Why I Choose Advocacy Over Fear

I’ve shared my story publicly on Instagram, YouTube and news channels. I want to spread awareness of ovarian cancer because there’s really no test to find it; a lot of people think you can detect ovarian cancer from a pap smear, but you can’t.

I want to show people that it’s OK to admit you’re struggling and that what matters is what you do about that struggle: You can let it beat you down and be miserable, or you can build from it. Just because I was diagnosed with cancer doesn’t mean I have to stop living my life or let my diagnosis rule my life.

When I had the ileostomy bag, multiple times I woke up lying in my own poop. Your dignity goes out the window. But sometimes I just had to laugh about it, because how many 24-year-olds can say that?

I haven’t been shy about sharing everything I go through because I want to show people that it’s OK to be different and to be proud to be different. I was proud to have my stoma (the opening in my abdomen connected to my ileostomy bag) hanging out because it made me see that you never know what someone’s going through and it’s important to treat people with kindness.

Planning for a Bright Future

Kaleb and I plan to make our way back to Florida and start a family. Doctors weren’t able to save any of my eggs, which was hard for me, so we’ll have to have a surrogate and an egg donor. I want to continue my fitness career and eventually get back on stage and compete. I’d love to open my own gym one day—that’s always been my goal.

I can see the finish line, and it’s amazing, but scary. You always think of that day where you get the good news, but you never think of when it’s going to come. This past year my life has been on a strict schedule, so it will be interesting going back to everyday life.

Ovarian Cancer Symptoms to Know

Ovarian cancer symptoms are often vague, and may not appear until cancer has spread beyond the ovaries. Symptoms include:

  • Indigestion, heartburn, nausea or gas
  • Belly swelling or discomfort
  • Pelvic pain or cramping
  • Bloating or a sense of fullness, especially after eating
  • Backache
  • Painful, frequent, or burning during urination, not because of an infection
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite or unintentional weight loss or gain
  • Vaginal bleeding or irregular periods
  • Pain during intercourse