by Nolan Stuckenschneider
It’s not a fun phone call to have your partner make at 6 am, calling your boss to let them know you are about to go into emergency surgery and you won’t make your shift in a few hours and aren’t even sure when you will return or what’s even going on.
After working all day at the dispensary on 4/20 with severe side pain then going straight to Hamburger Mary’s after work to perform in a show, I was woken up the next day at 4 in the morning from the pain. It had gotten to the point where I was screaming and crying and we knew we had to go into the emergency room and see what was going on. After doing the usual WebMD search, we were confident that it was my appendix, but wow - were we wrong.
We arrived at the ER, and I could barely speak because the pain was so intense. The doctors immediately started to question the size of my stomach. Asking me over and over if I was pregnant with my instant defense of “I’m a trans man on testosterone and have a birth control implant, I better not be pregnant!”
What a lot of people don’t know is that a few weeks prior, I was nervous about the way my stomach had been growing and went out and bought a pregnancy test to be sure. It was negative, but who knows. It’s always a possibility if you have ovaries.
I thought that since I had started testosterone injections in November 2018, this was just part of my body changing. Your weight will redistribute as your transition, and most trans men will gain a bit of a belly. So I just figured it was my poor eating habits taking its revenge on me. Plus, it didn’t hurt that my gig as a drag king was all about me being a dad. I had a Dad Bod. It was what it was.
I was admitted to the hospital and was getting prepped for emergency surgery. After a few scans, they determined that there were a few options:
- I could get the tumor removed right away, then would have to wait a few days for tests to come back to see if its cancerous. If it was non-cancerous, then that would’ve been the only surgery I would require, and I would been on my way.
- If it was cancerous, I would require an additional surgery with a specialist.
- Or I could wait 3 days to see the specialist and just have them take care of the surgery from start to finish and I could’ve gone home that day with pain killers to get by.
Honestly the pain was so horrible, I couldn’t stand 3 days waiting, so I took the emergency surgery, hoping that would be the end.
After 4 hours of operating, they had removed a 25-pound tumor that had grown on my left ovary. Twenty-five pounds is the equivalent of a baby manatee if you want a picture painted of what that looks like.
Then the wait began for the test results.
After a few days in the hospital, there was a moment where I was alone in my hospital room. My parents had gone home. My partner was home prepping our apartment for my upcoming discharge. Then the doctors came in with their own chairs and took a seat.
This was the day I realized that when a doctor comes in with a chair and sits down with news… it’s not good.
That was the day I got my official diagnosis: Stage 1C Endometrial Ovarian Cancer.
I was a 27-year-old trans man with a clean family medical history, and I was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer, especially for someone my age. I was extremely lucky though. The tumor came out in 1 large piece and was contained. If the cancer cells had broken into the fallopian tubes, it would’ve been stage 3 and my story would be extremely different than it is today. They didn’t think the chances of it being on the more positive side were high, but it was possible.
There was a point where the doctors questioned if my testosterone injections might have caused the tumor. So to play it safe, I was taken off of my shots for a month and a half until more testing could be done. With testosterone shots, if you don’t watch your levels properly and over inject, testosterone can turn into estrogen. Which could potentially cause cancer. They tested the tumor and thankfully it was 0% estrogen positive. Which means the testosterone wasn’t converting into estrogen and my body was processing it just fine. The day I got the message that I could continue my shots, was one of the most exciting days. Even more exciting than the day I got my prescription initially, because there were moments I thought I would have to completely halt my medical transition over all of this, but thankfully that wasn’t the case.
After an emergency surgery, a full hysterectomy (with additional removal of my appendix due to damage from the tumor), and a surgery to have a port inserted into my left shoulder, I was ready to begin the next stage. Chemotherapy.
Honestly, going into this, I was like most people. I know basically what cancer is and what chemo does, but I was very uneducated on the process and what it actually does and means.
Pre-chemo, I was given my CA 125, a number used specifically for ovarian cancer to see the cancer cell count. Mine was at 57 initially, where normal is 30s and below with 0 being nearly impossible. This number became my obsession for 4 months. Every appointment after labs, I would ask my nurse where we were. Which was almost weekly.
I became a pro at going to the doctor. I would have to drive down to Skyridge Medical Center weekly for labs and hydration. I got to a point where my doctors wouldn’t even need to ask and I would just automatically confirm my name and DOB. It got to a point where I asked if I could have a shot everytime they ask for my DOB.
Every 3 weeks I would spend 7–8 hours going from my gynecologist’s office in Littleton going over my results, then going straight to Skyridge for my infusion.
Each infusion was a surprise of what would happen next…
The night before, I would have to do a whole spectrum of pre-chemo drugs to help my body better accept and handle it, including benadryl, because of course I would be allergic to the first chemo drug that was 4 hour infusion process, but there was no option. I HAD to take that specific drug, which meant a double dose of benadryl plus an additional infusion of another antihistamine.
I went through 6 rounds of chemotherapy, and went in every 3 weeks for them.
They warned me that my hair would probably start falling out after the first round… it took until the 2nd for it to really kick in for me. There were days I could feel my scalp burning in spots and knew the day was coming that I would have to shave it off.
The first round, I prepped as much as I could, and overall it went alright. I was extremely tired for a few days and slept a lot. Nausea and lack of appetite kicked in, but overall it was way better than expected.
The second round, I went in feeling a little more confident and honestly, it wasn’t as bad as I expected AGAIN. Win! Nausea started to hit a lot more aggressively, but thankfully weed was helping to counter that.
Round 3 was a little worse. Manageable, but a struggle. I didn’t know what to expect for the next one. I had been warned by multiple patients that round 4 is when it’s the worst, but it hadn’t been bad at that point so how bad could it really be?
Really, really bad.
The chemo doesn’t really kick in until 2 days after treatment, as it takes time for it to hit and build up in your system. That’s why round 4 is so rough. It gets to a point where it is built up so much that it hits you like a wrecking ball. Then it levels out a bit after that.
The night before my labs after round 4 of treatment, I was in the worst condition I have ever been in physically. I couldn’t move without getting extremely lightheaded, I couldn’t eat or drink anything. I was mentally a wreck. I had no energy. I wanted to give up so badly. Three times in one night, I would try to get up off the couch to go to the bathroom, and within seconds of standing up, the lightheadedness kicked in, and I passed out. Thankfully my partner was there and was able to catch me and make sure I was alright, but waking up on the bathroom floor in the dark in their arms was terrifying.
When I went in to see my nurses the next day, they checked my blood pressure and levels and things weren’t right. My blood pressure was extremely low as were my salt levels. I was in such bad condition they had to do a double hydration for me that day, which meant two hours of sitting in the chair, getting pumped with saline, until my blood pressure leveled out.
It was a relief when the horrors of round 4 were over, because I felt confident it wouldn’t get as bad as that again.
Rounds 5 and 6 were like the beginning. Had some hiccups, but anything was better than round 4.
Though my body was handling the chemo well, there was a lot going on behind the scenes that people didn’t see or know about.
When I started chemo, my doctors warned me that the side effects of all the drugs I will be taking can cause depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide — you know, the usual spectrum of side effects you don’t want to deal with. I’m an anxious person, but I have never really had to battle with crippling anxiety or extreme depression. Then I got my diagnosis.
It’s not just the terror of finding out you have cancer, it’s a constant reminder that it could come back, it could kill you, it has killed many before, it’s all the drugs they put you on… then to top it off I was in the middle of a transition so my hormones were already out of whack. I was put on an antidepressant for the first time ever and started the arduous battle of finding a therapist.
I wanted to die. I felt like a burden on my partner, my friends, my family, and my community. Though everyone always seemed so loving and supportive, my mind couldn’t see or hear any of that. All it could focus on was the bad, and it constantly ate away at me. I found a therapist through my PCP that left me feeling worse. I had an hour long session, and after 15 minutes the doctor dismissed me and said there wasn’t much she could help with. So for a while, I gave up on trying to find another from lack of motivation and fear of going through that process again. There were too many options, and I was too uneducated in this area to know who to turn to. Thankfully, in the meantime, my PCP was able to find me an antidepressant that seemed to help. I kept performing in drag because it was the only thing that could distract me and keep me going and feeling somewhat happy and normal. I wasn’t healed enough or in the best spot to be performing, but I knew I had to. My mental state needed something positive, and drag gave me that.
All the drugs took away my personality. I would be out at bars and would avoid talking to friends, stare at my phone all night, and mentally shut down because I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t laugh. I couldn’t make jokes. I couldn’t converse like my normal self. I felt like a zombie.
This also impacted my relationship with my partner. We had only been dating for 9 months when I was diagnosed and they had to become my caretaker. Neither of us had any experience with dealing with cancer or anything close to this, and we were definitely too young mentally to have to deal with it.
We went from never having a fight to lashing out at each other because neither of us knew what to do or how to handle this mess. We were both scared. I was stubborn and angry most of the time, which would rub off on them and build up. I could feel that things weren’t going right and I wasn’t myself, but I didn’t know what to do to stop it and go back to normal.
Finally, the 6th and final infusion was upon us. We could see the light at the end of the tunnel and I was on the final stretch back to a normal life.
I barely packed anything that day because I knew the excitement of being over would make the day go by quickly. Friends came to celebrate the end with me, and for a day at the hospital, I felt amazing.
My nurses, Tana and Simone, were both there for my final infusion. They had been there for me since the beginning with constant words of encouragement, advice, and always to yell at me when I wasn’t drinking enough water. They never judged me for being a transman with ovarian cancer. They never questioned my name. They accepted me and made one of the worst experiences of my life, immensely better. As Tana unhooked me from my IV, Simone started to play Best Day of My Life, by American Authors.
As the song played, Simone walked me up to the bell on the wall that I had been staring at for months now, it was my time.
“Ring this bell
Three times well,
The toll to clearly say,
My treatments done,
This course has run,
And I am on my way.”
The feeling of freedom that came out as I grabbed that bell and rang it with all I could, felt amazing. 6 months of feeling like a prisoner in my own body was coming to an end and I could finally move on with my life.
We celebrated that night at the bar where it started, Hamburger Mary’s. The night before surgery, I performed at Hamburger Mary’s, which was located just a few blocks from the hospital I initially was admitted to. Then during my time in the hospital, our friends at Hamburger Mary’s welcomed my partner in when they needed an escape from the hospital and the nightmare that was going on. I could barely eat, but some french fries, tater tots, chicken strips, and mac and cheese balls from Mary’s was pretty much my diet for 5 days. Food had never tasted so damn good.
Now treatment is complete. I am officially in remission with a CA 125 staying at an average of 7. My hair is growing back. I went back to my full time job after a 6 month hiatus, and most importantly, I am able to perform in drag full time again. I can dance around and move like normal and my personality is back. Life is slowly lining up again.
Though this experience was horribly hard both mentally and physically, the experience it has opened my eyes up to is important.
As a transman, being diagnosed with what someone called ‘lady cancer’ at one point, is a terrifying and dysphoric experience. I had to acknowledge a part of my body that I don’t identify with for 6 months and deal with doctors in an environment that was all about ‘women’, ‘ladies’, ‘girls’, they loved to bring gender into all their marketing! Which as someone who doesn’t identify that way, it makes you feel uncomfortable.
I would sit in the waiting room for my gyno, and I could feel the older women staring at me. They would call out my name, “Nolan!” and they would all look up and wonder why I was being taken back.
I was thankful they would use my chosen name to call out and not my dead name, but the stares didn’t help.
Doctors still question if the testosterone caused the cancer to develop. Especially with the timing of it all.There is no scientific evidence to say for sure, but this experience has opened up a much needed discussion and clearly research needs to be done. Through this, I have gotten to speak to multiple medical professionals about my experience and have used it as a learning opportunity for fellow transmen to emphasize the importance of maintaining your health and getting regular check ups.
Doctors are terrifying for trans individuals. Some aren’t accepting, while some are amazingly understanding. Many trans patients will avoid going to the doctor due to dysphoria and the financial burden of it, yet in most cases they are the ones that need it the most.
Be proactive about your health. Take care of yourself. Don’t end up like the trans guy with the 25 lb tumor.
About the Author:
Nolan Stuckenschneider is a 27 year old transman that was born and raised in Denver, CO. By day he works in the cannabis / CBD industry, then at night is a full time Drag King. Nolan is a 4 time 2018 DIVA Award Winner as well as voted Best Drag King 2018 by OUTFRONT Magazine.