In June 2004 at the age of 23, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
The question I am asked most often is how I knew.
In hindsight, there were signs - little whispers that were easy to ignore. I was often tired, had lost a little weight, and those close to me joked about my tiny bladder since I had to urinate frequently. I reasoned that I was a busy, active newlywed and drank a lot of water.
For several months I had off-and-on abdominal swelling and pain that I attributed to certain foods or maybe my menstrual cycle. Sometimes I would think, "Maybe this is something serious." I'd spend some time reading online about symptoms, get overwhelmed, and decide I was overreacting.
Having recently moved back to Texas from California, I had no regular doctor. I picked one from a list for my well-woman exam in April - just two months prior to my diagnosis - at which time she felt nothing out of the ordinary. But by June I was tired of ignoring the pain and scared of what it might be. I knew I needed to listen to my body. Eventually I started to have major back pain when I exercised, and my abdomen was large, round, and hard. I knew I wasn't pregnant, but I also knew that something was growing in there. My Mom and I went to the ER when my back pain worsened. There they did an ultrasound and CT scan. I was referred to an oncologist.
Two weeks later I had a unilateral salpingo-oophorectomy - the surgical removal of an ovary and fallopian tube on the same side - through a vertical incision from my belly button down. My left ovary had grown to encase a tumor that was 22 cm at largest diameter and weighed 668 grams. One doctor likened it to a prize-winning cantaloupe. My surgeon took a picture for me before it was all cut up and sent to the lab for staging. When I awoke from the surgery, I was relieved to hear my Mom say that they only took the one ovary, and someone put the picture of my other one in my hand. It looked gnarly and huge, and it was gone.
I had a grade two immature teratoma, a type of germ cell tumor. It was stage one cancer, meaning that I was lucky - it was well contained and had not spread.
I completed nine weeks of chemotherapy, a regimen of BEP (bleomycin, etoposide, and platinum) delivered through a PICC line. The first, fourth, and seventh weeks were spent in the hospital getting all three drugs, while the other weeks I went to my doctor's office for bleomycin.
I lost much of my hair on the seventeenth day of chemo, just as a friend told me would happen. In a liberating event of solidarity, my Dad and I shaved our heads.
Cancer is no picnic. Some days are rough; depression and anxiety are to be expected, and I was no exception. I did my best to stay positive, and I kept telling myself that I had plenty for which to be thankful - after all, mine was an early stage cancer, a cure highly likely, I was young, the treatment had been less difficult than I expected... But it was still a bummer! For me, I was grieving the loss of an ovary (and possibly fertility), the loss of the future I wanted, my hair, the time it was taking for my hair to grow back before I could feel like me again... I felt like my life had been put on pause to deal with cancer. I wondered if I had caused it somehow, and when this was over, how would I make sure I didn't get it again?
The most difficult thing to swallow was the loss of that naïve belief of youth - that health and feeling great are just a given. Many of my peers were drinking too much, smoking, tanning, eating poorly, and other activities that are known to make one sick - these things I didn't do - and they weren't the least bit worried. Others were in the best shape of their life or having healthy babies or jet-setting around the world and enjoying their twenties. I didn't begrudge any of them their happiness or blissful ignorance of illness, but I wanted it, too.
During my treatment the easiest thing for me was to be a robot and just get through the days. I had to believe that I would get better. My family and friends are amazing, and they never let me forget that this was just a short time in my life and that good things were ahead. I continue to be grateful for the support I have.
I began to write about my experience. At first it was just a journal for myself, to help me process and remember everything that was happening. Once I had a few pictures of my hair growing back, I decided to put them on my website and write about my cancer experience there. Writing is very therapeutic for me, and I have met some wonderful people through my site with whom to share the trials and joys of life during and after cancer.
My cancer experience was a brief whirlwind, about four months from diagnosis to the end of my treatment. Fortunately I was able to take several months to recover, regrow my hair, and reflect on how I wanted to live.
During that time I realized that my interest in medicine was stronger than ever. I had always thought about becoming a doctor, but I had been afraid of the long, hard road. After what I had just gone through - I beat cancer - and with the obvious support system I had, what was there to fear? Why was I still here if not to be and accomplish everything I should be and do?
Now I felt as if I had a new life with new strength and purpose. I wanted to help people get and stay healthy the way I had been helped.
One year after my diagnosis, I enrolled in the requisite science classes. Along the way, my husband and I decided to start a family. Our beautiful, healthy daughter was born on Valentine's Day 2007. In March of 2008, I was accepted to medical school, and now I am in pursuit of my dream.
My granddaddy introduced me to the concept that life isn't about what happens to you; it's how you deal with it. I can't change that I got sick. But I get to choose how that affects me.
I choose to be grateful for my experience with cancer. I had a unique opportunity to learn about myself and to become more aware and appreciative of the good things in my life. My illness pushed me to realize my potential in a more purposeful, focused way. On the day I was diagnosed, I might have hoped, but never imagined, that I would be a mother and well on my way to becoming a doctor.
Almost five years later, I am healthy and still cancer free. In June of 2009 I will be considered cured.