Action Hero Survivors  :  Eden Ellman, Teacher
Eden Ellman and her sister, Nikki Ellman
Eden Ellman (L) and her sister, Nikki Ellman

“There’s a chance this could be ovarian cancer. You have to get a CAT scan right now.”  These words began a roller-coaster of events that I was powerless to stop. One day I found a grapefruit-sized lump in my abdomen. I went to my internist within a few days of finding the lump, and she sent me for a CAT scan that day. I had an ultrasound the next day and my internist sent me to a gynecologic-oncologist the next day. She had me on the operating table within 24 hours. On May 8, 2003, I woke from anesthesia to find out I had early-stage ovarian cancer. Thus began the endless-seeming rounds of doctor visits and treatments. My chemotherapy treatments lasted for four months. The fatigue and weakness from chemo lasted for about a year. The fears that I would get cancer again lasted for years. Sometimes I still have those fears.

I was 45. I wasn’t working; I had sold my chiropractic practice a year and a half before and was spending a lot of time with my mother, who was dying of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. I was glad to have the time to be with her. My husband had been recently laid off, and rather than being upset, we were both glad for the break. We spent New Year’s Eve that year planning the road trips we would take in our time off. We had a wonderful camping trip that spring, climbing in Red Rock Canyon and Joshua Tree National Park. It was on that trip that I noticed a lot of fatigue and I had one day of bad nausea, which I attributed to climbing too much and eating too much road food. A few days after we came back from that trip, I noticed the lump. I was lucky that I was referred immediately to a gynecologic-oncologist. I learned after the fact that having a GYN-ONC do one’s surgery dramatically increases your survival rate, as a regular surgeon may not do the right kind of incision to see all the cancer, and also may not correctly stage the cancer, which can interfere with getting the right kinds of surgery and chemo.

I was told I had a very good chance of survival. During treatment I focused on healing and being cured, although I felt I would very likely die soon. After the obligatory six-week rest period after surgery, I tried to be very active. I climbed at least once between each chemo treatment. My husband and I took two road trips, where I would try to climb at least one pitch a day. I had a huge support system of family and friends.

It was when the treatments stopped that my real troubles began. I was told there was nothing I could do to increase my chances of surviving. It didn’t matter if I ate organic foods, or avoided meats and dairy or exercised more or less. The doctors said that no studies had shown that there were any changes that I could make to my life style to prevent getting cancer again. Because there was no action I could take, I worried that I would get sick again. I found myself refusing to make plans. I told my husband, “We can’t plan a vacation for next summer – I might not be alive then.” I told my best friend, “I don’t know if I can come to your singing class – I may not live long enough.” I told myself, “I need to find a job but I may not live long enough to get through graduate school.” Because of these fears, I wasn’t able to make any decisions. I was paralyzed.

How did I learn to move on? Once I accepted that I could die so easily, I found that I feared death less. Part of this came from watching my mother die, shortly after I finished my own treatments. Although it broke my heart to lose her I was grateful that her suffering had ended. I saw death as a part of life. I also saw that having had cancer didn’t make me more or less likely to die than anyone else. Anyone could die at a moment’s notice! Anyone could have a car accident, or fall off a bike, or step in front of a speeding bus. Each day I lived was a gift that I had no guarantees of getting. Realizing that I could leave this world any time taught me that it was most important to be ready to leave. To be ready to leave, I had to live every moment in the best way possible. To do this I had to let go of hate and anger. I didn’t want to waste any of my precious time with these destructive emotions. I also learned to look in each person for something to love. I found that if I looked for it, everyone had something in them that is worth loving.

When I felt that I was using all the minutes of my life in the best way, it was easier to make the decisions I had been afraid to make. If Larry and I made plans for the next summer, we could hold those wonderful hopes in our hearts, even if those summer trips we planned were never taken. If I entered graduate school, each moment in class would be a moment spent learning. My life in each moment would be enhanced, even if I never graduated.

In this way, I have learned to take steps through my life again. I went to graduate school for two years and finished in December 2009. Now I am working as a teacher, teaching English as a Second Language to adults at a community college. Larry and I bought a truck-camper and we try to take several trips each year. When my fears resurface, as they will always do, when I struggle with anger or doubt, as I will always do, I remind myself that each minute is a gift that I never expected to get.  I replace my fears or angers or doubts with the words “Thank you.” And I am grateful to be alive, all over again.

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