In the fall of 2006, my outlook on life changed forever! Not that it was necessarily better or worse before that time, but now it was completely different! What started out as my routine annual exam with my gynecologist turned out to be the beginning of a new chapter in my life.
During the exam my doctor said that he felt something in my abdomen and wanted me to schedule an ultrasound. At that point, I wasn’t concerned, but I decided that I didn’t want to put it off. I remember it clearly: my exam was on a Wednesday and I scheduled the ultrasound for Thursday morning. The person doing the ultrasound was very pleasant and she asked me if I had been feeling any pain, to which I responded, “no.” A little while later, she asked me again if I was sure I hadn’t been feeling any pain and again I said, “no, should I be?” She didn’t answer. Later that day, back at work, I received a call from my doctor who asked if I was in a place where I could talk privately. Two flags went up: one that the doctor never calls me personally (it’s usually the nurse) and the other was that he wanted to talk to me privately. I’ve been seeing this doctor for over 20 years, so I knew him fairly well and trusted him completely. Once alone, he proceeded to tell me that he found a sizeable mass in my abdomen and he wanted to pursue it further. I have to admit that I was stunned by the news and I asked him to take good care of me. He said that whatever was found, they would pursue it as aggressively as possible. He then told me to have some blood work done, a CA-125 test. I wasn’t familiar with the terminology, but I agreed to do the testing the next day and come into his office for a biopsy the following Monday. At that time I did not realize my doctor suspected I might have cancer.
The next day, Friday, I went for the blood test and waited until Monday to go in for the biopsy. During the biopsy he determined that my uterus was so swollen he wasn’t able to do the procedure. He then told me that they needed to do a hysterectomy and remove the mass at the same time. I asked how big the mass was, and he told me that it was bigger than a baby’s head but smaller than a watermelon – did he say watermelon? Considering that I didn’t realize this mass was growing inside of me, I was a little startled by what he was telling me. I knew I had been gaining weight but I thought it was because I was getting ready to turn 50 and approaching menopause. He didn’t mention the word “cancer,” but he did say that if they find “the big C,” they would do what was needed for me to get through it. Before the surgery, my doctor was optimistic that it was most likely a fibroid tumor. All this news was overwhelming, and, for the first time, I shed a few tears. He then told me to ask the nurse to schedule a visit with a gynecologic oncologist with whom he had discussed my case, and then we would determine when to do the surgery. I asked him to start the surgery himself, and, if they did find cancer, then the oncologist would take over. I was still being optimistic.
I quickly realized that what I considered urgent wasn’t what others considered urgent. When I went to the person to schedule my appointment with the gynecologic oncologist, she told me that it would be at least 4-6 weeks before I could see that particular doctor because he was very busy. I told her that I needed to see him as soon as possible but she told me that’s what everyone wants. It was not exactly the response I was looking for. Needless to say, I was able to get an appointment to see him within a week, and we all agreed to schedule the surgery as soon as possible. The oncologist told me that the mass was about the size of a cantaloupe, but he also was optimistic that it was just a fibroid tumor. From that point forward, I referred to the mass as “my alien baby.” My CA-125 result was 57 (U/mL) which did not definitively indicate ovarian cancer. I’ve met some ovarian cancer patients that had numbers in the hundreds and others who were much lower than mine, so the numbers can vary significantly by individual. I secretly was hoping that the mass weighed 20 lbs. so it would be an instant weight reduction after my surgery. My doctor told me, with a smile, that it would only be a few pounds. I also joked with him to keep an eye out for any stray fat cells that he could remove while doing the surgery; he looked at me with a grin and rolled his eyes. Oh well, it was worth a try. I’m so thankful that I have two wonderful doctors, along with the nurses working with them, who have great senses of humor. Humor helped me get through the challenging moments yet to come.
On the day I was scheduled for surgery, October 30, 2006, I asked my husband, Don, if he was going to be okay by himself in the waiting room, not knowing what the results were going to be. He said he could handle whatever happened and would let friends and family know the results. Little did I know how truly difficult it would be for him. Before surgery, I was honestly more concerned about him than myself. At the time, we had been married for over 28 years, but had never had to deal with anything like this before. Don did great making the needed calls after he was told I had cancer. However, when he talked to my youngest sister, Linda, he finally broke down. Linda told me later that he was so upset when he called that she thought I had died. Luckily that wasn’t the case, and I realize I am so fortunate to have a husband that loves me that much.
The next thing I knew, I was coming out of the anesthesia, and my husband was in the hospital room with me and the oncologist. The doctor proceeded to tell me that not only did I have cancer, but I actually had two separate cancers – ovarian and uterine. Okay, what does that mean? He then told me that I would have to go through chemo. Okay, what does that mean? The chemo would be 6 treatments, one every 3 weeks. Okay, does that mean I will lose my hair? I think he was surprised that I didn’t ask him if I was going to live or die, but whether or not I was going to lose my hair. He looked at me with a slight grin and said “yes.” Now I knew what was coming, or at least I thought I did. I still didn’t ask if I was going to live or die because, deep inside, I knew I was going to live. The next visit was from my gynecologist who told us that I had Stage 1 uterine cancer and Stage 1 ovarian cancer. Though I was told I had two cancers, for some strange reason, I was somewhat relieved to know that they were both Stage 1. I was still trying to understand what it all meant.
I started the chemo treatments about 2 weeks after the surgery. The day of the third treatment I had a portacath (a.k.a. “port”) put in my chest because my veins got to the point where they were hiding from the nurses any time they came toward me with a needle. For those who don’t know, the port is a small medical appliance installed beneath the skin, through which the chemo drugs can be injected and blood samples can be drawn many times with much less discomfort than the many needle sticks that are a common occurrence with cancer treatment. The treatments were definitely easier with the port, and it saved my poor veins from the harsh chemicals that would have to go through them without it. I would highly recommend anyone going through this to have a port put in by the first chemo treatment. I followed the doctor’s instructions in detail and appreciated the fact that the medicines that were available have improved so much in minimizing the nausea. I felt what I consider “bad” starting a couple days after each treatment, but I never got sick to my stomach. What a blessing in the grand scheme of things.
One of the interesting things about chemo is that it changes the taste of food. I found that eating foods with strong flavor such as hot wings, dill pickles, and olives, would override the metallic taste in my mouth. Also, eating with plastic utensils helped as well. It’s amazing what I learned as I went through this “experience.” There was one very memorable evening when the only thing I wanted to eat was hot wings, and nothing else sounded appetizing. Don drove all over Richmond until he found the perfect hot wings. I will never forget that loving act. I couldn’t imagine going through this without someone to be there for me and I am so grateful that my husband was with me every step of the way.
One day, soon after the surgery and first chemo treatment, a good friend of mine brought her daughter, who had survived Leukemia a few years earlier, to see me. We talked about what happened when she went through her chemo treatments and specifically when she lost her hair. I’m so glad we talked about it because it would have been really scary to experience the rate at which my hair actually fell out. Here one day and essentially gone the next. Ironically, on my fiftieth birthday, about 2 weeks after the first chemo treatment, I lost most of my hair. What a memorable birthday that was! I woke up in the morning and went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. I started to laugh because I literally looked like a monkey. My hair was so thin and sticking out all over. I went to my husband and told him that I looked like a monkey and we both had a good laugh. I definitely learned that losing hair is a personal event and everyone deals with it in their own way. I wasn’t ready just yet to shave my head, so I took my scissors and cut the hair that was left to about 1 inch. My hair was very thin and I was amazed to notice that chemo didn’t take any of my gray/white hair, only the ones with color, or at least that’s what I told myself. When you’ve been coloring your hair for a while you don’t even know what color it is anymore. About a week later I decided to cut it even further so I took out our dog shears and cut it down to about ¼ inch. It worked for me, but eventually, I lost all of my hair. On the plus side, it was great not having to shave my legs for at least 6 months. I was a little disappointed, however, when I lost my eyebrows and eyelashes. My face felt naked! I attended a “Look Good, Feel Better” class sponsored by the American Cancer Society, and they demonstrated how to use makeup and scarves to make you feel better about yourself. I strongly suggest it to anyone going through this. Over the next 6-8 months I had fun with the various wigs and scarves I collected. It was during the wintery months, so I enjoyed having them on my head to keep me warm, too. There were only a few people who actually saw me without any cover on my head but, again, that is a personal choice. I didn’t actually go out without something covering what I had left of my hair until it had started to grow back a few months after ending the chemo. People ask me if my hair was different when it grew back. As a matter of fact, I felt like I had shag carpet on my head for a while. It was so coarse and thick, but eventually it did turn back into the texture of the hair I had before.
After finishing my sixth and final chemo treatment in March, 2007, I assumed that the challenge was over. I soon found out, though, that the effects of chemo can last quite a while after the treatments are finished and some never go away. At work, I found it difficult to focus and my attention span was very short. I had difficulty remembering the simplest things, and I honestly thought I was losing it. It was scary thinking that I was losing my mind and wondered if the chemo gave me Alzheimer’s; I just didn’t know what was happening. After doing some research, I learned about “chemo brain,” also known as “chemo fog.” What I learned was that the chemo targets all of the fast-growing cells all over the body, including brain cells. Once I understood what I was experiencing, I was able to deal with it by doing a lot of brain exercises to help me improve my comprehension and my ability to think and reason. Sudoku and crossword puzzles became my favorite pastime. It wasn’t easy, but I persisted, and about a year after my last treatment, I actually felt “normal” again. The difficult part is that very few people know about “chemo brain” and it affects everyone differently, so it was challenging trying to explain something that I didn’t fully understand myself. Now I make sure to share my experience with people going through it so they know what to expect. Hopefully, the sharing of my experience will make their journey a little easier.
It’s been 4 ½ years since my last chemo treatment and the only side effect that I still have is the ringing in my ears, but I’m definitely not going to complain. I go in for exams and blood work (CA-125) every 3 months and I still get a little nervous until I hear the doctor say that everything looks good. I consider myself one of the lucky ones and am thankful that I’ve had wonderful family, friends and faith to get me through the adventure that I’ve been experiencing.
The main thing I try to impress upon people is that this can happen to anyone. Women need to get their checkups and need to pay attention to their bodies. I didn’t have any family history of cancer, and I have no idea why this happened to me. As I talked to other survivors during this process, I became determined that I was going to be a survivor, too. My outlook on life has changed after going through this. I decided that I want to retire early and travel the country with Don and our three dogs in our RV and spend time with our son and his family. I also want to spend time working with causes such as the HERA Foundation. In the past I always thought I’d work my entire life; it’s amazing how your priorities change after going through an adventure like this. After 33 years working for the same company, I will be 56 when I retire, and I will have my whole life ahead of me. Life is too short and you just never know when you might be called to go on to another new adventure and be faced with new challenges. My next challenge is to enjoy and treasure each moment I am given, search the country for the best chicken wings, and spoil my grandchildren and my puppies!