Ovarian Cancer: Turning Up the Volume and Raising Awareness
My goal is to help ovarian cancer raise its voice. Known as the disease that “whispers… so listen,” awareness can literally save lives.
Almost everyone has been touched somehow by cancer. We can all think of a handful of common cancer types and what signs or symptoms we’re supposed to look out for. We’re supposed to check for lumps and bumps, changing moles, difficulty breathing and unusual bleeding.
Ovarian cancer isn’t that simple. First, it’s only a risk to women, and most of those diagnosed are postmenopausal. Second, the symptoms often go unnoticed or get attributed to other illnesses or diseases. Besides that, who spends a lot of time thinking about their ovaries sprouting a tumor? Not me. Not at age 19.
The Easter break of my senior year in high school, I became extremely ill. I had what seemed like the flu for three days. I didn’t eat or drink and basically spent most of that time unconscious unless I was rushing to the bathroom. I have almost no memory of that time because I was so ill. Around day five, I was recovered enough to read in bed and return to school once break was over.
I didn’t think anything more of that day until a team of doctors and I were discussing the emergency surgery I had just endured. The “flu” I had experienced 14 months earlier was actually the beginning of my cancer.
A few months after the “flu,” I graduated high school, started working full-time, and was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I was an active distance runner, drank nothing but water and was at my ideal weight. I had no concerns about my health.
Slowly, symptoms began to develop, but I ignored them. At some point, I noticed I was tired more often. It didn’t strike me as odd, since I’m not a very energetic person to begin with and I was often busy with friends and work. My stomach was swelling, but that could have been my poor diet, indigestion, period bloat, gas… Then, I suddenly became lactose intolerant. I was a dairy addict and now the smallest glass of milk or scoop of ice cream had me doubled over in pain. (That was probably the first thing that told my self-conscious something was seriously wrong.) I did some research and found out lactose-intolerance can develop as an adult, so I excused it away, bought some over-the-counter Lactase, and avoided my favorite food group.
My stomach grew and I was accused by family and friends of being pregnant. I knew it wasn’t possible, but they were sure I was lying, and I felt the sting of their anger and rejection. I lost friends — maybe because they thought I was lying; maybe because they were embarrassed or unsure of what to think? I’m not sure. Then the pain started. At times, I had shooting pain pulsing down my legs. I knew it was a pinched nerve, but I attributed it to the many hours I spent on my feet, so I ignored it. As time progressed, my entire abdominal cavity pulsed with sharp pain, and it was often a struggle to stand up straight or walk. I used six pillows to position my body for sleep. I was almost constantly out of breath. Knowing I had to face my fears, I sat down on my bed one day and I could feel a palpable mass inside my stomach. I could outline it with my fingers and I remember thinking, “It’s ovarian cancer.”
My subconscious voice finally became louder than my conscious denial. I thought about it for a few days, preparing myself for whatever was to come.
On June 20, 1998, I woke up struggling to breathe. Panicked, I called my mother to take me to the hospital.
After arriving in the ER, labs were drawn and I was taken quickly into ultrasound. The exam was one of the most painful experiences of my life. The technician had tears in her eyes.
After the tests, a physician told me I had ovarian cancer. My CA-125 was over 2,500 (normal is 1-35), I had a large mass and a specialist was called in to do emergency surgery in the morning.
Early the next day, I was wheeled into the operating room and awoke several hours later to find out they had removed a 15-pound tumor, my appendix and omentum. My right ovary, the source of the tumor, was “obliterated” from being crushed by the size of the mass. I was assured I could still have children with my remaining left ovary, and they talked to me about follow-up appointments and prognosis. Amazingly, my tumor was 100 percent contained and no chemotherapy would be needed. I was part of 15 percent of women who were diagnosed in the early stage. Dozens of medical students paraded through my room and read my chart because I was such a marvel — such a great learning opportunity they might never have again. No one in my family had this cancer. I was a rare and “unlucky” girl.
After recovery, I realized recovering doesn’t have a schedule. Before the Internet was easily accessible, there was no way for me to find other survivors in my area. When I found the local ovarian cancer coalition, I was the youngest survivor by 60-plus years. I was a marvel to them and felt like a circus attraction. I didn’t have any peers. How could I expect to, when my physician said the odds of my specific diagnosis was “one in 80,000,000”!
I spent hours in the library, learning what I could, coping with my diagnosis. Life went on… I continued to follow up with my physician, went back to work and got back in touch with friends. Eventually, I met and married the love of my life, and though our journey was complicated, we had two beautiful children.
Today, I’m thankful for social media. I started my own Ovarian Cancer Awareness & Support page, and I help others going through similar situations. I’ve read stories of other young women, some as young as 9, who were diagnosed and faced battles of their own. By spreading awareness of symptoms and connecting with others, I am healing, one day at a time. This June marks 19 years of being disease-free, and it’s still a process, but it’s what propels me in life. Because of cancer, I found my passion and my career. Because of cancer, I learned to find the stars in the darkness, the rainbow after the rain.
Awareness is everything in ovarian cancer, as I have learned. The symptoms are vague and often get attributed to other illnesses or diseases until it’s metastasized. Because of this, prognosis is very poor. Only 15 percent of all ovarian cancers are found at an early stage, so it’s important we educate each other on the signs and symptoms. According to the American Cancer Society for 2017, about 22,440 women will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer and about 14,080 women will die.
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