Hi, my name is Naomi Whitacre, I am 61 years old, married to Tom, my "rock", and adored by my son Eric, 32 years old. In early January, 2002 I was diagnosed with Stage IIC ovarian cancer at the age of 54. In 2005 I retired from mainstream corporate life as a Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Corp Operations and now work as an HR consultant, an instructor at UCSD and volunteer for the San Diego Chapter of the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, currently serving as President.
I will never forget that Saturday morning, January 5th, 2002, the day my world forever changed. I am here today because of many miracles, great medical professionals, loving and supportive family and friends, sheer determination and an unrelenting belief that I would survive.
Back to Saturday, I was spending a typical weekend day working out with my trainer at the beach, but I came home and felt feverish. Within an hour my fever was 103 degrees. The first miracle was calling my doctor and having him call me right back! My doctor said it sounded like appendicitis - he directed me to go to the hospital, that he would have a surgeon lined up and that the appendix would be gone by the evening. I was a very busy person in those days and tried to bargain with my doctor - if only I could have some antibiotics now I would be glad to come see him in a week or two as soon as my schedule freed up. The next miracle was that he wasn't into bargaining and off my husband and I went to the hospital. Five and a half hours later and an MRI to see my appendix and there it was - a perfectly fine appendix but a large tumor in my pelvic area the size of a cantaloupe. Apparently the raging infection and fever resulted from the tumor wrapping around an existing cyst.
That was Saturday, by Monday my husband and I met with a Gynecological Oncologist - I could hardly pronounce those words then - and how fortunate I was because research now shows that being treated by a GynOnc tremendously increases your rate of survival. By Tuesday I was operated on and the diagnosis was certain - Ovarian Cancer.
Cancer - what a surreal experience to hear that word - I was healthy, vibrant, physically fit, had been working with a nutrionist for years to ensure that I ate the right foods, had no history of cancer in my family, had just completed an extensive executive annual physical exam and had no signs of any cancer, so how could this be possible?
My story is not different from the many ovarian cancer patients I've met - yes I was bloated, fatigued, constipated from time-to-time, had lower back pain that I thought was workout induced and had a progressively growing tummy - but none of this seemed unusual for a menopausal woman my age. And like so many woman, I had my Pap smear and pelvic exams routinely having no idea that you cannot detect ovarian cancer by doing that. So for me cancer was simply INAPPROPRIATE and a challenge to be dealt with and that's how I handled it.
I'm one of the lucky ones who didn't get overwhelmed by my treatment program. It wasn't a walk in the park but it definitely was manageable. I had a great medical team and I trusted them - a primary and supporting Gynecologic Oncologist and the best Oncology nurse anyone could have. I received the standard IV protocol for Ovarian - 6 chemo treatments, 3 weeks apart, with a combination of drugs - Taxol and Carboplatin - administered by my Oncology Nurse in the doctor's office - small, quiet and personal. After the first treatment and because of the pain I experienced in my arms I had a Port-a-Cath inserted for the rest of the treatments. I actually kept the port for five years and had it removed in 2007 after passing that sacred 5-year mark! At the suggestion of my doctors, a month following the completion of the chemo I choose to have a "second look" surgery and had an abdominal port put in so that I could take IP chemotherapy (intraperitonial chemotherapy which is primarily Sisplatin, the forerunner of Carboplatin and much more difficult to tolerate). I received two IP treatments - going into the office for three days in a row and being filled with the liquid, coming out at the end of the three days looking five months pregnant, lying on the ground for two days turning every 15 minutes to move the chemicals around in my body. It was incredibly unpleasant, had miserable side effects and I did it because I wanted to live and do whatever it took to make that happen.
So what have I learned as a survivor? I've learned more than anything how instantly your life can change; that although you can never control what happens to you, you do have ultimate control over who you are and how you handle your life; that I had so much more inner strength than I ever thought I had; that no matter how successful I might have been professionally, that meant nothing compared to the experience of loving and being loved; how special it is to work with people who have survived cancer and what a special bond there is between us. And most importantly I've learned how lucky I am to experience life after cancer and to be able to share my story and work to make a difference.
I am sharing my story today because I have seen too many women die from Ovarian Cancer because they were either misdiagnosed - almost 30% of women are misdiagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome or some other condition - or are diagnosed too late. I believe that if I knew about ovarian cancer, the symptoms and the lack of diagnostic testing available, I would have been more vigilant and realized that the changes in my body were not menopausal and "silent" but were there to make me pay attention. I work now to "Break the Silence" so please join with me and help spread the word - listen carefully to your body, and if you experience these symptoms get a second or third opinion if necessary until you are sure that your diagnosis is right and you are on your way to feeling better!