One hot July day in 2014, my mother Debi and I were out for a walk. I still remember the look on her face as she winced in pain and stopped dead in her tracks. “What’s wrong?” I said. “Just got a quick sharp pain in my lower right side, but it’s gone now, weird. Must be gas,” she replied. Little did we know, it wasn’t gas pains.
My mother always carried a lot of weight in her belly. Her weight fluctuated all the time, which is why we hadn’t really noticed the bloating. It wasn’t until September 2014 that the bloating and pain were severe enough that she went to her doctor. She was told she probably pulled a muscle during one of her exercise classes. Feeling uneasy, she went home and Googled her symptoms. The next day she told me she was sure she had ovarian cancer. I told her to stop overreacting and to never Google symptoms because the result is always cancer. I will always regret those words. One week after she saw her doctor, she ended up in the ER, where they drained almost 1 gallon of fluid from her abdomen.
CT scans and a CA125 test revealed that she did, in fact, have ovarian cancer. We knew right then that we had to get her to a hospital in Boston for a second opinion. Her new doctor staged her at 3C. I had never been more afraid in my entire life. My brother and I Googled the stats (another thing I don’t advise doing). It didn’t look good, but we remained hopeful and tried not to show our fear. I couldn’t help but think that my mom might not see me turn 30. I had never imagined losing a parent at a young age, and I had no idea how to process this information.
She was put on a grueling chemo regimen before her major debulking surgery. Large tumors were scattered throughout her omentum. Chemo helped shrink them enough so she could have the surgery, and it was scheduled for the week of Christmas. After a 9-hour procedure, the surgeon came out and took us into a tiny conference room. “We couldn’t get it all,” he said. Our hearts sunk, and all the air left my lungs.
Over the next 5 ½ years, she endured countless rounds of chemo, immunotherapy, and multiple clinical trials. Each new treatment came with a host of hellish side effects. Hair loss, nausea, vomiting, neuropathy, mouth sores- she had it all. Throughout the duration, she was exhausted and beaten down. Somehow, she never gave up. Each time a new chemo regimen stopped working, she was quick to ask, “so what’s next?” Her doctors were in awe of her resilience. She always had them laughing, and nurses routinely requested to have her in their care.
Unfortunately for us, and despite how hard she fought, my mother lost her battle on April 8th, 2020. She was 62. The cancer had spread into her intestines, and there was nothing more that could be done. I often imagined how it would end, and a global pandemic was never part of what I’d pictured. Thankfully, we were able to get her home, and she passed peacefully with us by her side. She was a warrior and an inspiration. Her unwavering strength showed me that, in life, you aren’t always dealt a good hand, but how you react can mean the difference between life and death. Yes, my mother ultimately died, but in those 5 ½ years, she made sure she lived to the fullest. Of course, she had dark days. We all did. But for much of her illness, her personality never faltered. Her spirit was big and bright, much like her smile.
This hole in my heart may never be filled, but I am so proud of my mother for how long and hard she fought. She taught me to always listen to my body, especially when it whispers. She taught me that in the face of death, when it feels like you can’t go on, you can always muster the courage and strength to continue. I will live now, for her. In my dark days, I will remember how she pushed through. She is my angel.
This journey through my mother’s diagnosis has taught me to be my own advocate. Sometimes doctors aren’t right. Only you truly know your body, and you have to be persistent. You must have hope. The poem
“Hope” by Emily Dickinson is painted on a wall on the bridge between Dana Farber and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. I sat on that bridge for hours during my mom’s surgery and thought of it often over the years. My hope is that my words can help the teal community.
Carolyn Petrishen, 31, lives in Lowell, MA. This September, she will participate in her 4th NOCC Walk/Run to raise awareness for ovarian cancer. She will continue sharing her mother’s story in hopes it can help others in their time of need. In August 2018, her mom was asked to sing the national anthem at Fenway Park in Boston, MA for the annual Jimmy Fund telethon event. It was amazing!