Warning: This article contains images that some readers may find disturbing
A 24-year-old Mexican woman, who wants to remain anonymous, was having problems with her weight and decided to go on a diet. She noticed that it was working, at least on her face, arms and legs. But her waist not only remained thick, it actually continued to grow.
At first she didn't pay too much attention to it, but after a while the problem couldn't be ignored. The weight gain around her abdomen got so bad that it looked like she was pregnant even though she wasn't.
Her situation continued to get worse until her abdomen was so big she could hardly walk. She even began to lose her appetite, but despite not eating properly, she continued to gain weight.
There are no doctors or clinics in the rural area where the young woman lives. But she knew she needed medical attention and made the decision to travel to Mexico City to get help. The journey took her a full day and when she arrived, she met Dr. Erik Hanson Viana. He remembers that first meeting well: "When I met her, she could just about walk a couple of steps before getting agitated and feeling like she was struggling to breathe."
The initial examination led to a horrifying diagnosis: she had a cyst on her ovary that had grown to gigantic proportions.
The X-ray revealed a growth so huge that it was actually crushing the young woman's organs. The drastic weight gain had also put her at risk of a heart attack. It was clear that an operation was needed quickly.
Operating on giant cysts is extremely tricky and there is no general consensus in the medical community as to how it should be done. The doctors offered the woman two options: to remove it immediately at its full size which would leave a massive scar from her chest to her pelvis, or drain it first to make it smaller and then operate.
Anxious to have the giant lump out of her body, the young woman chose the first option. "She wasn't very concerned about the aesthetics," the doctor commented.
The operation was very risky. As Dr. Viana explained: "The cyst wall is less than one millimeter thin and needs to be prevented from drying out, otherwise it could easily break too." This had to be avoided to prevent any potentially cancerous cells from entering the woman's body.
The operation went well and the cyst was removed safely. And what a sight it was! It was nearly 20 inches in diameter and weighed a whopping 73 pounds — the equivalent of carrying 10 babies!
A cyst is classified as "giant" if it has a diameter of four inches and weighs at least 26 pounds. By comparison, this one was absolutely gigantic.
"If we hadn't operated it would have gotten to the point where she wouldn’t have been able to walk, she would be severely malnourished and unable to eat. It's hard to say how long she would have lived, but it would have been a really bad quality of life," explained the doctor.
With the growth removed, the young woman's abdomen was now back to normal size.
But the stretching caused by the giant lump left huge folds of skin.
"Two days after surgery she walked out of hospital. Before she was used to carrying 73 lbs inside her because of the cyst, so movement was like she was levitating or walking on the moon," said the doctor.
Six months later, the young woman came back for a follow-up consultation to deal with the scar.
"She was fully healed. She was standing completely straight. She now walks like a normal person without needing a walking stick or other mobility aids and her abdomen is now flat," the doctor explained.
This poor young woman suffered and almost died simply because she had no access to proper health care. If there had been a doctor in her village, she would have been diagnosed much sooner and could have avoided such a drastic and invasive procedure. It's a situation that is all too common around the world. But if there's a lesson here for those of us who are more fortunate, it is to pay attention to our bodies and try and have any unusual symptoms diagnosed early. This case is an extreme example, but for that reason certainly a memorable one!