For the past 12 years, I have been battling ovarian cancer Stage 3C, a disease that, for me, has become chronic. Since then, I have had 5 recurrences, several bowel obstructions for a total of 5 major surgeries. The longest NED time I have had was from the summer of 2012 until March 2015. I have been on numerous chemotherapies, on a PARP inhibitor, participated in two clinical trials, and currently, I am on a maintenance drug.
I remember the summer of 2008 consisted of experiencing extreme fatigue, although I came up with excuses for why I was so exhausted. I would get tired of doing typical everyday activities. I was severely bloated. For a moment, I thought I was pregnant, although we had almost zero percent chance of being pregnant, according to fertility doctors. I also had lower back pain, which I attributed to working out. I also had unusual cramps and irregular periods, again something I didn’t really experience before. I had these signs and symptoms for a few months. I knew something was not right, so around the first week of August 2008, I called my OBGYN, I made the office aware of what I was experiencing and scheduled a vaginal ultrasound.
On a Monday, a few days before my appointment, I had to go to an urgent care center because I had a dull strong pain on my left side of the abdomen. After explaining to the doctor my previous symptoms, she ordered blood work and a CT scan for the same day but at a different location. After my CT scans, I was asked to wait in the waiting room. The doctor called the facility, and she proceeded to tell me there is a large mass from my ovaries to the spleen, and it seemed to be cancer. I was speechless; I was alone. No one was around. She asked me to go see her give me more information. My husband picked me up to go to the urgent care center because there was no way I could drive. She was very comforting and informative. She had already scheduled an appointment for me to see an oncologist for the next day. I saw the oncologist. He performed a physical exam but couldn’t conclude anything until he had access to the CT scans and had a vaginal ultrasound scheduled in a few days.
A day later, in the middle of the night, I woke up with an extremely sharp pain on the right side of my abdomen. My husband rushed me to the ER. After being heavily medicated, I vaguely remember seeing my OBGYN in my hospital room explaining to my husband that I was going to have surgery performed by a gynecological oncologist. Thursday of the same week, I had a full hysterectomy, my spleen, appendix, omentum, and according to my doctor, about 99% of the cancer was removed. Once the pathologist report came back, it was determined I had STAGE IIIC poorly differentiated serous and endometrioid ovarian cancer.
Soon after, I started a chemo treatment plan. As soon as the chemotherapy TAXOL entered my body, I had an anaphylactic shock. I was rushed from the cancer care center to the hospital because of the severe reaction. Eventually, I was able to have Gemzar and Carboplatin as my first line of treatment. Around Mid-February 2009, I finished treatment, and my scan came back NED, with No Evidence of Disease.
In 2010, during a regular 3-month check-up with my gynecological oncologist, my CA-125 had risen over 30 points. A PET scan confirmed that the cancer was back. I had lesions in my pelvic area, on lymph nodes, and a tumor in my right lung. After discussing my options with my doctor and family, I started a clinical trial in August 2010. The clinical trial shrunk my lung tumor and the lesions in my pelvic area and lymph nodes. Unfortunately, my tumors started growing around January of 2011, and I had to stop the clinical trial.
I started a new chemo treatment plan of Doxil and Carboplatin. After my last chemo, I had a CT scan, and the report stated it had appeared as if the tumor in my lung had been “surgically removed.” I was once again NED.
This was the longest NED period I had, from the summer of 2011 until March of 2015. Again through a 3-month checkup, my CA-125 tumor marker had gone up. A CT scan confirmed I had a 3 cm tumor where my left ovary would be. Since the previous chemo combo had given me a lengthy period of NED, I was given the same chemo.
Well, I was NED from September 2015 until May of 2017. I had nodules on my left pelvic area, and I underwent surgery for the 4th time. This time though, instead of chemo, I started a PARP inhibitor which is pills. The major side effect was severe fatigue but manageable once the dosage was adjusted. Unfortunately, in March of 2018, I had more nodules appear in my right pelvic area. Crazy me, I opted not to have surgery. Instead, I had my doctor referred me to a clinical trial. I was on an immunotherapy clinical trial for a couple of months until the nodules started growing rapidly, and I had some internal bleeding.
In October 2019, I had my 5th surgery, probably the worse one because my bowels had to be resectioned. I started back on chemo. This time it was a totally different combination, Taxotere, Cisplatin, and Avastin. Boy, oh boy, the surgery and chemo kicked my butt. I had lengthy hospitalizations. I ended up in the hospital multiple times due to the chemo, and I had to be taken care of the majority of the time by family members or friends. Don’t get me wrong, the previous times I had chemo, it was rough, but this was to a different level. Thankfully, I completed the chemo treatment in late April 2019, and I am NED!!! Hopefully, this combo of chemo will keep me NED for a long time. I will continue to see my gynecological oncologist every 8 weeks and receive Avastin, a maintenance drug, every 4 weeks for a year. I am one of the fortunate women who have survived this long, with an advanced stage of ovarian cancer. Early detection is the key.
When I first met my GYN-oncologist after emergency surgery, I asked him how long I had to live. His response has stuck with me. He said, “You are not a number.” The irony is that I taught Algebra at the time of my diagnosis—those words resonated with me. I refuse to be a negative statistic to Ovarian Cancer Stage 3C. When I first got diagnosed, I came across NOCC. I remember signing up for something online, and I received a bag of goodies and literature. NOCC made me feel like I wasn’t alone, that other women have had Ovarian Cancer and survived. NOCC gave me HOPE. I eventually met the San Antonio Chapter, and they welcomed me with open arms. Since 2009 I have participated in health fairs, 5K walks, support groups, and other gatherings.
My journey has been full of so many tears, sleepless nights, frustration, sadness, and, at times, feeling defeated. But at the same time, cancer has taught me so much and brought some of the most special people in my life. I have learned that our time here on Earth is precious. Every last second is a gift, even with cancer. I used to consider myself OCD at work and in my home life. When I was diagnosed, my priority became staying alive. The OCD went out the door. It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t color coordinate my closet or labeled where things belonged at home or work. What mattered is how people made me feel and how I made people feel, those special moments created with loved ones and not things that were bought. I realized that the support from my family, friends, my medical team, and even strangers were crucial to my survival. I surround myself with positive, encouraging people. I tried to learn as much as I could about ovarian cancer through survivors, NOCC, local support groups, and social media groups. I am often asked how I stay positive and keep my faith, and my answer is from God and others. However, I have realized that I have to be my biggest cheerleader. The drive has to come from me as well. Keeping my physical, emotional, spiritual wellbeing is all-important.
Maria Gonzales is a 12-year ovarian cancer Survivor Stage 3C as of Aug. 2020. She has been married for 14 years and has two chihuahuas. She has been in education for 23 years. She has transitioned from being a math teacher to a middle school counselor. Maria loves spending quality time with her family and friends. Nothing brings her more joy than being with her nieces and nephews. Faith and hope keep her positive. Maria was born and raised in El Paso, Texas but resides in San Antonio, Texas.