Emma’s Michigan Answer: Surviving Ovarian Cancer and Finding a New Outlook on Life

In October of 2020, Emma Bumstead celebrated a remarkable milestone that few people, especially at the age of only 31, have experienced. 

“If you had told me growing up that I would have ovarian cancer at 26, I wouldn’t have believed you,” says Emma. “I used to dislike being called a survivor, but now I embrace it and realize that while I couldn’t control becoming a cancer survivor, I can control who I become after cancer.”

Emma’s journey to overcome ovarian cancer began in 2015 when unexplained weight gain caused her to see her doctor. 

“I had been practicing yoga and could feel that something had changed, I figured it would go away on its own and ignored it. It would be months later when clothes were not fitting right and my stomach felt hard that I would finally go to the doctor,” remembers Emma.

A CT scan and an ultrasound quickly placed Emma in the care of Bethany Skinner, M.D., inside the Michigan Medicine Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital. The tests showed a mass on Emma’s ovary that concerned Dr. Skinner enough to push Emma to have exploratory surgery. 

I used to dislike being called a survivor, but now I embrace it and realize that while I couldn’t control becoming a cancer survivor, I can control who I become after cancer.

“For a woman this young to have cancer would be extremely rare. Most women her age who have a cyst usually end up having a benign cyst,” explains Dr. Skinner. “But in Emma’s case, her cyst had some features concerning for cancer, so we decided to move to surgery quickly.”

It was a good thing Emma went along with Dr. Skinner’s plan because after she awoke from surgery the next day, she learned she was part of the unfortunate one percent and indeed had ovarian cancer. 

She recalls, “I was shocked to the point of disbelief and then later scared. I had assumed that because I was young that it couldn’t be cancer. Thankfully the tumor was stage 1A and the surgery was successful.”

To ensure that the cancer had not spread, Emma’s medical team suggested she have chemotherapy. So, over the next three months she underwent three rounds. 

“It was hard to lose my hair and endure the side effects of the chemotherapy,” recounts Emma, “But it could have really been worse, so, I’m grateful.”

While receiving a cancer diagnosis at such a young age can have a negative effect on patients, Emma endeavored to find healing through a lifelong passion for art and also an adventurousness to try new things she might not have before.

“I think my experience has made me appreciate creativity even more. Returning to my art practice helped me feel more like myself after treatment” says Emma. 

It also meant boldly taking on new challenges through wilderness travel. In 2019, she participated in a five-day backpacking trip with other cancer survivors in Wyoming through True North Treks. Her group turned out to be all women – breast and ovarian cancer survivors – who quickly bonded.

“We all had similar experiences with chemo and similar side-effects,” Emma recalls. “A lot of them were close in age to me with familiar stories — even if they had breast cancer — and familiar things they wrestled with afterward.”

More recently, she hiked Acadia National Park in Maine alone.

“Before my diagnosis I looked at travel as something you had to do with other people,” Emma says. “Post-cancer, I’ve discovered that sometimes it’s good to have some experiences just for yourself and with yourself.”

Asked what recommendations she has for other young adults embarking on a cancer journey, Emma suggests not worrying too much about the uncertain future and focusing on the here-and-now. “Be patient with yourself and be accepting of anything that you’re feeling,” Emma says.