Six years ago I had the surreal experience of being told I had cancer while I was in a hospital bed with morphine dripping into my arm. I had gone into the hospital a day earlier for routine surgery. I had an ovarian cyst that my original doctor told me I could either have removed immediately or just “wait and see.” I opted to have it removed immediately since it was winter, and I wanted to be able to climb that summer.
I was diagnosed with Stage IIC ovarian cancer, but it was fortunate that I was diagnosed early. My original doctor at the county hospital told me that, at age 30, I was way too young for cancer and that I shouldn’t worry. When I went to cancel my membership at the climbing gym for the weeks it would take for me to recover, the owner of the gym insisted I talk to a fellow climber/doctor. I’m so glad I did. Dr. Dan urged me to see a gynecologic oncologist on the advice that “no surgery is routine, so why not go to the doctor who has the most experience.” It made sense to me. Fortunately, by going to a gynecologic oncologist, I was able to be staged correctly during the initial surgery. Studies show that when a gyn-oncologist performs the surgery, survival rates increase up to 25%.
I had treatments every three weeks, I’d be down for a good 3-4 days, but then I’d bounce back. My chemo left me bald. I hated wearing wigs; they were just too high maintenance for me. When I wore scarves on my head I felt everyone’s looks of sympathy because they could tell I was sick. On one particularly hot day I asked my boyfriend if he minded if I took my scarf off. Of course he didn’t, but when I did, I felt naked, like I was topless or something. The next morning I made a decision. I rode my bike to the tattoo shop and had a dragon tattooed on my head. Dragons are a symbol of strength and protection. With my head decorated I didn’t feel naked being bald and no one gave me looks of sympathy anymore. In fact they looked at me like I was a badass which was pretty cool.
During my good days I’d go rock climbing, take pottery classes, rest, meet with my knitting circle, and eat really healthy foods. I’d even ride my bike six or so miles every week when I had to get my blood work done. I took two climbing weekends at Seneca Rocks, WV. I even had my pottery selected for a special exhibit at the community art center! Six months after I started chemo, I got the news that I was cancer free. I threw a big party for my friends and family and called it “The Bury the Dragon Party,” with the idea that my hair would grow back and the dragon tattoo would be buried and never seen again.
Sadly, in 2008, just four days after the Climb4Life in Salt Lake City, I was diagnosed again with ovarian cancer. This time it was a new cell type. I had to have a complete hysterectomy and more chemotherapy. This time the chemo happened during a very bad flu season and rough winter. I couldn’t go to work or to the climbing gym because my white blood cell counts were so low. I spent most of my days knitting and watching movies. I knit five sweaters in two months. When the weather was nice enough I rode my bike around the river. That New Year’s Day I had another party and invited close family and friends. We told everyone to be there at 5:00 pm for a New Year’s toast. People speculated that my boyfriend and I were getting engaged that evening. Instead, we got married right then and there. It was a blast and the best thing I ever did in my life!
That Spring I was elected to the Board of Directors for the HERA Women’s Cancer Foundation. I was declared cancer free once again on May 12, 2009. Less than three months later I rode my bike 540 miles from Burlington, VT to Palmerton, PA in one of the country’s most challenging organized rides.
What started out as a completely surreal experience has turned into an incredible journey. I have learned some big lessons from my cancer experience:
- Doing what you love is important, but sometimes doing what you love is impossible. So you have to get up and find something else to love, and then go do that.
- I’m very lucky to have people in my life who care about me.
- Be your own advocate and when you can’t, ask for help.
- Every morning I wake up is precious, and I try to relish each day.
All in all, having been diagnosed early, I feel so lucky and grateful to be alive. I want to give back by being a part of the HERA Community to help spread awareness and stop the loss of women from ovarian cancer. My climbing team is called Bury the Dragon, and I will be participating in the 10th Annual Climb4Life Utah September 15-18. I hope you will join me for a really fun weekend of climbing and hiking to benefit the HERA Women’s Cancer Foundation. See you there!