Amanda Shoultz Amanda Shoultz before (left) and after surgery
When Amanda Shoultz's stomach first started pushing out from under her shirts in January, she thought time and genetics were catching up to her, and that she was simply gaining weight. The 29-year-old had also been "very, very sick" with COVID-19 over the winter holidays and was taking steroids, which can cause bloating.
"I just thought, oh god, these darn steroids are making me bigger," Shoultz tells PEOPLE. "But looking back now, I realize that I was gradually gaining weight in my stomach for at least two years."
It turned out that Shoultz's steadily increasing waistline had nothing to do with her eating habits, or the steroids, and was actually a 17-lb. cancerous tumor — but it took months of doctor's visits, attempts at dieting and curious co-workers asking if she was pregnant before she got a diagnosis.
The first time Shoultz, the senior marketing and PR consultant for Baylor Scott & White Heart and Vascular Hospital in Dallas, talked to a doctor about her weight gain was in February, during a regular physical.
"At that point my stomach looked like normal fat — it just looked like I had gained a little weight and the scale showed it," she says. "I told my doctor, 'I'm going to be 10 lbs. lighter the next time you see me.' "
Courtesy Amanda Shoultz Amanda Shoultz, right, in April 2021
Shoultz, who was already a regular runner, started exercising daily and "gave up all the foods I love," including lactose, gluten and red meat, and she stopped drinking alcohol.
"I was losing weight according to the scale, but I was gaining weight in my stomach in inches," she said. That was a red flag. But you don't think, 'Oh, I'm 29 and I have cancer.' That's literally never something that's going to occur to you."
As the year progressed into the summer months, though, her friends started to get concerned, and acquaintances and people at work "started asking when I was due, and if I knew what I was having, and saying that they didn't know I had a boyfriend," she says. "I would literally come home and cry."
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Shoultz says she's "lucky" because she works at a hospital where she was able to get a recommendation for a gastroenterologist. He told her that they would start by ruling out all the "bad stuff" first, and began with tests that all came back normal before moving to a CT scan — which showed a 33-cm. tumor in her abdomen, around the size of a basketball.
"Once I saw him, everything moved so fast, which looking back was probably the biggest blessing because I did not have any time to process what all that meant," she says.
Amanda Shoultz The CT scan of Amanda Shoultz's tumor
Within two days, Shoultz was meeting with her surgeon, who told her she had cancer.
I was just staring at the surgeon," she says. "I think I was just in so much shock that I actually didn't hear him. My brain couldn't process that I cancer."
On the morning of Sept. 27, six days after her initial CT scan, Shoultz went in for surgery. Her doctor had warned that because her tumor was so large, they would likely need to remove a kidney and part of her adrenal gland. But they may also have to take out part of her colon and sew it back — a risky procedure — and that there was a 1% chance they would have to remove her ovaries.
"That was some news to get the morning of your surgery, you know, hey, you're 29, you have cancer. And by the way, you may never be able to have kids," she says.
But the surgery went smoothy, and after two hours they had removed the 17-lb. tumor.
"Looking back, I was very lucky that none of that happened, and all he did was take out my kidney and my adrenal gland," she says.
Amanda Shoultz Amanda Shoultz before her surgery
Shoultz recovered in the hospital for five days, and now nearly three weeks post-op she's "recovering pretty well." There is a strong chance — about 50% — that her cancer will return in the next five years.
"That's pretty high, which is scary. But the odds are definitely in my favor because I'm very young and otherwise perfectly healthy," she says, adding that she'll undergo frequent CT scans and blood work "so if a tumor does come back, they'll catch it before it hits 17 lbs."
Shoultz first shared her story in an Instagram video, and "didn't know it would resonate."
"I knew my message, about listening to your body and knowing when to go to a doctor, was important, but I didn't expect this much attention."
Shoultz is also very aware that she was "fortunate" to get the level of care that she did. "I feel very, very lucky that I work at a hospital and that because of that, I was well connected with the best doctors."
But even as a hospital employee, her insurance denied her initial CT scan "saying that I didn't need it."
"That is the one thing that told me I had cancer and if I didn't have that scan I wouldn't have known."
Shoultz encourages people to "listen to your body whenever something is feeling off, because it's probably not just in your head." She doesn't want people to give up on getting medical care because of problems with insurance, and urges people without it to seek out community hospitals and "fight for yourself, because insurance won't fight for you."