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I Was Diagnosed With Ovarian Cancer At 21—And These Are The Lifestyle Changes I Made

Dr. Aurora Aves shares how she battled ovarian cancer.
PHOTO: Photos contributed by Aurora Aves

Editor's note: This essay was submitted by Dr. Aurora Aves, who is a staunch advocate of plant-based food after beating stage 3 ovarian cancer. 

I was in the middle of studying the Anatomy of Abdominal Organs during my first year of medical school at 21 years old. Feeling my own abdomen to better remember the lesson, I abruptly stopped after palpating a hard and huge lump in the middle of my abdomen, as this part of the abdomen should be soft and squishy.  I started panicking so I spent that whole night reading every resource I had, at the time, to find an explanation. 

The next day, I immediately booked an ultrasound scan and a check-up to confirm my suspicions. It WAS indeed a tumor, and it was bigger than my own head. It was the month of January, almost the end of the school year, so I had a bunch of final exams coming up. I absurdly tried to schedule my own surgery and recovery, hoping to be done with everything just in time for my finals. Nothing else mattered to me more than finishing my first year of medical school; getting sick wasn’t an option.


“They’re just going to take it out so I can go back to school right away." I thought. I was absolutely in denial that it was something worse. I’ve barely started my 20s, so this couldn’t be malignant. Unfortunately, I was wrong. It was stage 3 ovarian cancer. I was devastated. The next few months, I endured 3 major surgeries to remove the huge primary tumor and its metastases, plus ten cycles of chemotherapy to kill the small little tumors that the surgeries didn’t get. Instead of mulling over my illness, I chose to repeat my first year of medical school while undergoing said procedures. 

The scientist in me made sure I documented everything and studied all I could about my disease. Before every surgery, I gave my clunky camera to my surgeon so I can have photos and videos of my tumors for my own collection. I recently found out that Blue Zones are the areas of the world where people live the longest lives. I consumed hundreds of articles and journals on how the people of Blue Zones live. and a consistent habit they have is eating a 95-100% plant-based diet. A traditional Filipino diet is the opposite of Blue Zone foods, so I committed to clean-eating. Meat, dairy, and eggs were out. Fruits, vegetables, and grains were in. 

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One year after my terrible diagnosis, my amazing doctors declared that I had NED, which is the clinical term for “No evidence of Disease” for cancer patients. I survived. I had my tumor markers tested and scans every 6 months for close monitoring; I was perpetually ready to start surgeries and chemotherapy cycles again in the event of recurrence. At long last, I finished medical school and passed the licensure exam 4 years later. I was still avoiding meat, dairy, and eggs, but not completely. I was technically called a “flexitarian”, which means my diet was primarily plant-based, but with occasional animal proteins.

After my longtime partner and I got married, we immediately started trying to conceive. I knew from the moment I got my diagnosis that I wanted to be a mother, which is why I vehemently refused to sign the consent form for hysterectomy (removal of the uterus). A few years passed with monthly failures and tears, so we got tested to see what was wrong. My egg reserves were low and my multiple past surgeries left a lot of scarring inside, so my remaining fallopian tube, where the egg and the sperm usually meet, isn’t accessible. It was a poor combination for someone who’s always dreamed of becoming a mom.


We chose to undergo IVF (In Vitro Fertilization), since time wasn’t on my side. It took several failed cycles before we finally became pregnant with our bouncing baby girl. We were convinced that she might be the only child we would have, as it’s been extremely difficult for me to conceive. A few months after our baby was born, a cohort study with 130,000+ participants was published which concluded, “Replacing animal protein with plant protein was associated with lower mortality.” A documentary, What The Health, came out soon after. After watching it, we became determined that we needed to improve our ways to live longer for her. We owe it to our only child to be the healthiest parents we could be.

After I completely made the switch to a full plant based diet, we were blessed with a new miracle: a naturally-conceived pregnancy, something I had almost completely given up on after years of loss. 


Our two little girls are now thriving on the same 100% plant based foods. Thankfully, we have plenty of options these days. We eat normal foods like white rice with viands, pizzas, pastas, sushi, ice cream, cakes, desserts –  just their plant based versions. We might have started the switch to have longer and disease-free life, but it has now evolved to an advocacy to reduce animal suffering and help curb climate change. Eating a plant based diet could be the “single biggest way” to reduce any individual’s environmental impact on Earth. Learn more about switching at Got to Be Leaves

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