One of the youngest ever to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, model Peyton Linafelter is sharing her story so other teens pay attention.
When you’re a healthy teenager with a sore back, you assume you did something minor to cause it – maybe you worked out too hard, or you twisted the wrong way. Peyton Linafelter figured she’d tweaked her back while lifting heavy boxes. She dismissed the pain. High school and friends were much more important than a little backache. Plus, she was busy focusing on her blossoming modeling career, after being discovered by an agent at a Taylor Swift concert.
A few months went by, and the back pain still nagged at her. Peyton went on vacation with some family friends in Barbados. It was there that things got really bad. “I couldn’t keep anything down. I was throwing up. I was bloated,” she says. “But why would a 15-year-old be thinking about cancer or another serious diagnosis?”
At the ER in Barbados, doctors told her she had ovarian cysts – typically harmless fluid-filled growths in her ovaries. Another doctor back home in Colorado echoed the diagnosis.
That was in December 2015. By April, Peyton was in so much pain that she couldn’t go to school. Her belly was as swollen as if she were five months pregnant. “Then on April 26, I was taking a shower and I nearly passed out,” she says. “My vision was blocked and I started losing my balance. That’s when my mom decided we needed to go to another doctor.”
Stage 4 ovarian cancer
Peyton went to the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora. Doctors there diagnosed her with ovarian cancer – stage 4. She was just 16. Of the 22,000 women diagnosed with ovarian cancer in any given year, about half are age 63 or older. This type of cancer is exceptionally rare in young women. Peyton’s case was an anomaly.
“Peyton is perhaps the youngest patient in the U.S. diagnosed with serous ovarian cancer, the most common type of ovarian cancer. The incidence in teenagers is far below 1 percent,” says her doctor, UCHealth gynecologic oncologist Saketh Guntupalli, MD.
Peyton’s cancer was advanced. It had filled her entire abdominal cavity and had taken hold in her lungs. She says her diagnosis left her in shock. “I couldn’t get a grip on what was going on.”
“We knew it was serious, because it was stage 4,” says her mother, Tera Linafelter. Yet she says Guntupalli and his staff immediately put them at ease. “They never gave us a prognosis or any scary facts. They were like, ‘We’ve got this.’”
Still, her doctors knew the seriousness of the diagnosis. “Peyton is a remarkable young woman with a fighting spirit of someone three times her age, but, nonetheless, we were obviously apprehensive given the advanced stage of her cancer,” Guntupalli says.
Peyton put school and her fledgling modeling career on hold to focus on her treatment. She had three rounds of chemotherapy to shrink the tumors, but her condition continued to deteriorate. Doctors discovered a bowel obstruction. They hospitalized her for six weeks, putting her on IV fluids and nutrition to get her strong enough for surgery.
In early July of 2016, Peyton had surgery to remove her tumors and fix the bowel obstruction. Surgeons removed her spleen, took out lymph nodes, and performed a hysterectomy. They followed up the surgery with targeted chemotherapy to kill any remaining cancer cells.
“We treated Peyton very much like we would an adult patient, given that we wanted to be as aggressive in her cancer fight as we could,” Guntupalli says.
On December 22, doctors declared Peyton cancer-free. She still sees her doctor every three weeks, and she’s on maintenance therapy with the chemotherapy drug bevacizumab (Avastin) to prevent a recurrence, but she survived. “I’ve been doing great,” she says.
Peyton is about to start her senior year of high school. She’s also signed with Next Management modeling agency. Agents there loved her story, and the scar down her belly that goes with it. She’s optimistic – and realistic – about how that scar might affect her odds of having successful modeling career. “They told me very upfront and very seriously that some people are not going to want me because of my scar and my imperfections. Some people are going to want me more because of my scar and my imperfections. I liked hearing that because I knew the people who were really interested in me would make an effort to get me,” she says.
Now a cancer survivor, Peyton is spreading the message to other teens not to ignore danger symptoms of ovarian cancer, like nausea, appetite loss, and fatigue. She and her mom starred in a UCHealth TV ad, “This is Normal.” And, she’s sharing her story with everyone who’ll listen. “I’ve done interviews, speaking engagements. On my Instagram I’m starting to post more about the personal side of my story,” she says.
Although ovarian cancer in teenagers is rare, it can happen – as can other cancers. Teenage girls need to be aware, and willing to speak up, Guntupalli says. “I think that it is so important for young women to advocate and push their physicians and the healthcare community to investigate when they don’t feel right. Often times young women have symptoms of serious disease, but medical professionals tend to push them aside because of their age and as having ‘growing pains.’ Young women should continue to advocate for the thorough health evaluations they deserve.”
Peyton stresses to teens the importance of listening to their body – and paying attention to the signals it sends. “I just hope they will really look into everything that’s going on with their bodies, and not just toss things away and think everything is going to be ok,” she says.
August 29, 2017
Janet O’Dell, RN