Action Hero Survivors

Margaret Imai-Compton Photo

Margaret Imai-Compton, Mountaineer

My journey with ovarian cancer started on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa over a year ago.  It was February 2013.

One of my expedition members from Boulder, Colorado had lost her best friend to ovarian cancer in 2007.  Vaune subsequently linked up with HERA, an organization based in Denver, whose mission is to fund scientific research to find an early detection tool for ovarian cancer.

HERA organizes the Climb4Life events to raise funds and raise awareness, so Vaune formed Team Donna (in her friend’s memory) and invited me to climb in the charity event in Boulder, CO.  Since I’ve been mountaineering for 12 years, and since I was heading out to the Rockies about the same time, I decided to sign up.

Between my daughter and me, we raised over $5,000 in Canada for Team Donna.  Then we drove from Toronto for three days to participate in the 2013 Climb4Life in Boulder.  It was a brilliant day filled with thrills and chills as we rock climbed in one of Boulder’s many deep canyons.  Later, at the gala dinner, I listened to two survivor stories, and started to wonder if the elusive symptoms both women described might actually be describing me?

Both survivors made the point that ovarian cancer symptoms are vague, non-specific and highly individual.  So what I took away was to PAY ATTENTION!  Be your own champion.  Ask for a CA-125 blood test, which, although not perfect, is the only existing marker that might indicate ovarian cancer.

Since returning from Kilimanjaro four months prior, I had started to experience occasional bloating.  For example, I’d put on a pair of pants and think, “Geez, that feels kind of snug,” but it’d be gone in a day or two.  I dismissed it, saying to myself, “What woman doesn’t experience bloating from time to time?”

I’d also developed isolated lower back pain, and although my massage therapist had worked on it for a number of sessions, it persisted.  Again, I rationalized it by telling myself it was due to helping my daughter move back home from university.

But the pivotal “ah ha” moment was when I remembered, hearing anecdotal stories over the years, about a possible connection between fertility drugs and ovarian cancer.  You guessed it.  I’d been through five years of infertility treatments in my 30s.

So here I am, decades after taking fertility drugs, feeling bloated a lot of the time and with nagging lower back pain.

After the charity climb in Colorado, I was back in Toronto for my annual medical exam.  Everything checked out and my family doctor congratulated me for excellent health and fitness.  She said, “I wish all my patients would look after themselves like you.”

At the very end of the appointment I tentatively asked her if I should have a CA-125 test, and how soon I should have it.  I said, “Well, actually I’m leaving for Banff tomorrow and I’m going to be gone for six weeks to climb some big mountains.  Can it wait until I’m back in September?”  Her response was kind but dismissive:  “Sure – you’re the last person I’d expect to have ovarian cancer.”

So I had a thrilling summer climbing lots of big peaks in the Canadian Rockies, and went back mid-September for the tests.  Three days later my family doctor followed up with the results, and although the ultrasound was inconclusive, the CA-125 count was quite high.  A normal reading is anywhere from 40 and under.  My count was over 800, but I’m told that the test is not perfect.  She arranged a consult with a gynecologic oncologist at Canada’s leading cancer hospital.

My meeting with the specialist was brief – a manual internal examination, another CA-125 blood test, and instructions to book a CT scan on the way out.  I’m not at all worried because the medical team seems pretty casual and unconcerned.

Two days later, I was told my CA-125 numbers had risen significantly in the 2 weeks between mid-September and my appointment with the oncologist.  The count had almost doubled from 800 to 1400.  Remember, “normal” is 40 or under.  And then the words that stopped me in my tracks:  “We believe you have ovarian cancer.  You’re scheduled for surgery in six days.  And probably chemotherapy after that.”

So I had 6 days to rearrange my life for the next 6 months.  But I did it.  And I had the surgery.  Out went the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, and cervix.  The pathology report came back with the diagnosis of stage IIIc ovarian cancer.  When my surgeon broke the news to me, I jumped up, hugged my daughter and raised my arms in triumph.

Was I happy?  You bet!  I was overjoyed because it could have been stage IV, which is the most advanced stage and frankly, outcomes at stage IV can be sketchy.  So yes, I was relieved and grateful with the diagnosis even though it was further along than I had hoped.

I asked myself, “is my glass half empty or half full?”  From this point forward, I was determined that anything I did with my life, ovarian cancer notwithstanding, my life was going to be lived “glass half-full.”

After the surgery, there was four and a half months of chemotherapy.  Thinking back, I was deeply conflicted during the first chemo session.  It lasted almost 10 hours, the first drug going in first through my arm, then the second drug through my abdomen.  It was totally contrary to all my values that had kept me healthy for 61 years – to eat healthy, organic foods; to stay active and fit; to avoid chemicals and drugs. I climbed mountains, for goodness sakes!

As I watched the chemo dripping through the IV tubes, for the first time since the diagnosis, I cried.  “How could this be happening to me?”  But as soon as I turned my thinking around, and realized that other women before me had, and were, surviving and thriving despite the disease, I embraced chemo.  In fact, I couldn’t wait for the next session, and the one after that, for a total of 12 sessions.  Once I accepted that chemotherapy was the way to recovery, my feeling was, “bring it on!”

Seven weeks ago, after the last of the chemo treatments, after a CT scan and after an up to date CA-125 test, my oncologist told me “You’re disease free.  You’re cancer free.”

I lost my hair, I lost a lot of my perky energy and saddest of all, I lost Leo, my beloved dog during my last chemo cycle.   But I never lost hope.  Because I received so much love and compassion from my family, my community, and all my medical team.

What have I learned?

I’ve learned to pay attention to ovarian cancer symptoms.  It’s paramount that we educate ourselves on the symptoms, elusive as they are. Bloating, abdominal pain or discomfort, feeling full quickly, difficulty eating, any change in urinary habits.  If they persist more than 3 weeks – see your doctor.  And speak up.  Ask for the tests.  Ovarian cancer is often overlooked among doctors, yet it’s the deadliest of the women’s cancers, with the shortest survival rates.

I’ve learned not to be afraid with an ovarian cancer diagnosis, or any cancer diagnosis for that matter.  Medical research and treatment protocols continue to improve with spectacular results.  Look around and you’ll discover all sorts of people in your world who’ve survived the disease.

I’ve learned that outcomes can be better if you’re fit and healthy when cancer strikes.  And maintaining a positive attitude and control of your emotions goes a long way to acceptance and quicker recovery.

I’ve learned people will come to your rescue, even people you don’t know.  Once I stepped through the cancer door, I found support from HERA, Ovarian Cancer Canada and survivor services like Wellspring.   This support, often coming from strangers, reminds me that what truly matters is that we love and take care of each other.

I’ve learned the importance of planning for my future, that this cancer journey is only part of my life.  Planning and training for my summer mountaineering adventures in the Rockies is currently my focus because getting to beautiful high places in the sky feeds my soul.

Finally, I’ve learned to be generous with my Gratitude.  Starting from my surgery when I thanked everyone in the operating room, throughout my treatments, my follow-ups, and with every encounter with my family and community, I make a point of expressing thanks.  I’ve never felt more loved and cherished as I have in this journey.

Today, my special message of gratitude is to Vaune S. who paved the way for me to pay attention, who invited me to participate in HERA’s Climb4Life Colorado, who has supported me throughout my journey with love and compassion, even though we are separated by a huge expanse of geography.   So thank you Vaune, Team Donna and HERA.  You made it possible for me to continue living a vibrant and joyful life.

Ed Note:  Team Donna is now known as Team Donna & Margaret, and they are climbing in the 2014 C4L CO.  Click here to support their fundraising efforts.

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