My Toddler Got Her Period: A Strange But True Medical Story

Photo: Ira Lichi / Shutterstock
toddler girl in carseat

My daughter had just turned two when she got her first period.

It came with all the challenges we expected — moodiness, emotional sensitivity, even cravings for chocolate. It was a very typical menstrual cycle, really.

It just happened a decade before it was supposed to.

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On our way to urgent care, menstruation wasn’t even on my radar. Had Rosie been injured? Had she ruptured an internal organ? Or had something even more unspeakable happened to my daughter?

I should have been paying closer attention.

The doctor on call wanted to do some x-rays, she said, to rule out some of the most concerning options. I was pregnant. My preschool-aged son and I walked Rosie to a room where we, ourselves, could not accompany her safely. She toddled in. Rosie was a late walker, accustomed to being carried and still not very steady on her feet. Her brother held my hand.

Several hours later, in another hospital, he asked me to please stop calling him a trooper.

It was in that hospital — the second of three — that we got the phone call. Our doctor told us to pack an overnight bag and head to The Children’s Hospital in Denver. Dr. Macaruso would explain more when we arrived. Try not to Google too much until then, she told me.

My immediate Google search identified Dr. Macaruso as a tumor specialist. My stomach dropped as I noticed the heading on her page: Pediatric Oncology. The words looked so casual there. They were in the same font they used to reference allergies and broken bones.

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A close friend of mine has a medically fragile daughter. Her hospitalizations seem constant and earth-shattering. “I don’t know how you do it,” I’d once told her.

“It’s not really a choice,” she replied. She had long since grown tired of being regarded as a special kind of mother. “When you have a child like Kinsey — you just do it…and you would too if it were one of yours.”

Over the next few days, I learned that Rosie had a granulosa cell tumor. It was a rare type of ovarian cancer usually found in postmenopausal women. The tumor had been secreting hormones, which sent Rosie into early puberty.

“Has she been emotional? Moody? Extra sensitive? Falling apart at the drop of a hat?”

Yes, I answered. I just thought those had been symptoms of toddlerhood — not cancer. The doctor nodded. There was no way to tell. Ovarian cancer in toddlers was not, after all, something they saw often. There weren’t a lot of case studies to draw information from.

“Anything else you’d like to know?”

I drew a blank. I felt like I should have had more questions than I did.

“How big is the tumor?” I asked lamely.

“About fist-sized — maybe a little bigger.”

“Her fist?”

“No,” she corrected me. “An adult’s fist.”

At just over twenty pounds, Rosie was unusually small for her age. I couldn’t fathom a tumor of that size fitting inside her body.

There it was, though — firmly attached to her right ovary.

The tumor — and her tiny ovary with it- was surgically removed the following week while I sat in a waiting room. She could still have children, I was assured — unless it had spread to her other ovary. If that happened, we would need to make some more difficult choices.

Thankfully, as I learned after the surgery, this was not the case. The tumor was even larger than we’d thought, but it was confined to her right ovary. The surgeon took a picture of it next to a pen for scale. I stared at that picture a lot over the next several weeks. It looked almost like its own organ, another heart or a kidney, or a spleen.

Removed whole, it had spared us chemotherapy and left my daughter’s fertility intact.

We are among the lucky ones.

The next few days spent recovering in the hospital were a blur. I was by Rosie’s side every moment, often sleeping curled around her in the hospital bed. We watched Zootopia a thousand times.

I still hadn’t cried at that point. Almost six months would pass before the tears came, a welcome flood. That’s how long it took my insides to unwind, to accept it was finally over.

There are, of course, residual effects. There are still ultrasounds and MRIs. Because of the hormonal disruption to her growth, Rosie may not reach her full adult height. Given her small birth weight and general stature, she might not even break five feet.

It’s amazing how little that matters now.

What matters today is her smile, her sass, and the incredibly dramatic way she sings. Things are different. Our family will never be the same.

We are, once again, among the lucky ones.

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Robyn Reisch is a writer who is frequently featured in Medium. Follow her on Instagram.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.