Ovarian cancer survivor says her pregnancy 'saved' her life
Ivette Alicea still tears up, 27 years later, as she recalls how her daughter helped save her from dying of ovarian cancer.
"I never would have known I had cancer if I hadn't been pregnant," Alicea tells PEOPLE Magazine.
She says, "For me, Mother's Day is a miracle."
Though Alicea, 49, had been suffering persistent symptoms – including bloating, pelvic pain and bowel issues – for years, she "didn't recognize the signs," she says.
Those signs, also including abdominal pain, back pain, frequent urination, nausea and vomiting, can be easy to overlook since they can also be associated with menstrual cycles, irritable bowel syndrome and other conditions.
And that's exactly what she plans to do.
In time for World Ovarian Cancer Day, which falls on Mother's Day this year, she is sharing her diagnosis and survival in an emotional video released by the Tell Every Amazing Lady About Ovarian Cancer campaign – a story of how mother and daughter "saved each other."
"I would have died. We both might not be here," Alicea says, of her stage 3 cancer diagnosis during her pregnancy, revealed when she ended up in an emergency room on Halloween 1988.
"I thought I was having a miscarriage," Alicea says. Instead, doctors told her she had a large pelvic mass growing alongside her baby girl, Amanda, and that they would need to operate.
"Save my baby," she told them.
Both mother and daughter survived, and Ivette later underwent chemotherapy after Amanda was born as well as several more surgeries.
"Not knowing if I was going to be there to raise you was the hardest part," Ivette tells her daughter tearfully in the video.
"I think you're incredible," Amanda, a former Miss Staten Island, tells her mom in the video, still marveling today at how her mother prioritized her daughter's life over her own.
"You are easily the most incredible human I have or will ever encounter in my entire life," Amanda says in the video, adding, "Not only are you strong and beautiful, but you chose me over you and that's huge. You chose my life over yours. No one will ever love me that much."
She tells PEOPLE, "It's been [nearly] 28 years since my mother has survived ovarian cancer and since then, nothing has changed."
"Ovarian cancer is still the women's [gynecologic] cancer with the highest mortality rate," Amanda says.
About 22,280 women in the U.S. will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer this year, and about 14,240 will die from ovarian cancer, according to estimates from the American Cancer Society.
There isn't a test, like a mammogram, that can be used to screen for ovarian cancer, though a mass can be detected with a pelvic sonogram and there are blood tests now that can help doctors determine if a pelvic mass could be cancerous, and if a specialist is required for the surgery, experts say.
Though ovarian cancer is known as a "silent killer," that isn't true, says Dr. Kevin Holcomb, director of gynecologic oncology at New York-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine.
"It is not a silent disease. Symptoms do exist. They tend to be quiet symptoms so you have to listen very carefully," Dr. Holcomb says.
"Obviously the majority of women with these symptoms don't have ovarian cancer," he says. "But women should bring any persistent symptoms to the attention of their doctor."