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No One is Immune to Cancer

By May 14, 2021June 21st, 2021No Comments

There’s no clear history of cancer in my family. I was a college athlete. I prioritized whole-body health and I taught others the benefits of doing the same. I’ve always thought I was immune.

One night in May of 2020, I tried to go to bed but couldn’t lie down comfortably. I began having difficulty breathing. Pain spiraled out from the middle of my back. I ached so badly that no position provided a reprieve. I’d never experienced pain that proved so thoroughly debilitating. My heart started beating through my chest, racing like I’d sprinted a marathon. I told my wife to call 911, convinced I was having a heart attack.

By the time I got to the hospital, my symptoms disappeared. I felt like an idiot for calling 911. Just another sucker duped by a panic attack. During the ambulance ride I recalled that six weeks prior, I experienced unbelievable calf pain that moved from one leg to the other before magically disappearing altogether.

When the ER doctor examined me, I told him about my unexplained leg pain, thinking this was some gateway to a certain diagnosis, but it was this heart-racing, backache episode that made me call 911. He looked at my vitals, first ruling out COVID and then a heart attack. The COVID rapid test was negative and my vitals were strong and stable. Instead, he ordered a CT scan of my chest because “crazy things were happening with COVID.” I might not have it now — but I might have had it already. The results showed both lung cavities riddled with blood clots. I was immediately admitted to the hospital for more tests.

Within a few hours, another abdominal scan showed enlarged ovaries, both with unidentified masses. The masses had also spread to my uterus. After a CA-125 blood test and pelvic and transvaginal ultrasounds, I first heard those shattering, life-altering words: “ovarian cancer.”

Due to my pre-existing pulmonary embolisms, I wasn’t a candidate for an immediate surgical procedure. The biopsy revealed at least Stage 2 endometrioid ovarian cancer. Maybe worse. My doctors prescribed an aggressive chemotherapy treatment followed by a total hysterectomy. Chemo was a rollercoaster of emotions. The highs of positive thinking (If anyone can do this, I can.) followed by the ultimate lows, fueled by disbelief, denial, and doubt. Arriving, finally, at the date of my surgery, felt like a momentary return to the embarkation platform. The surgery I understood. Surgery was concrete — a doctor would open me up and remove the poison eating me out from the inside. Surgery also revealed that I had Stage 1A endometrial cancer of the uterus. If you’re going in for one cancer, you might as well take two.

Post-surgery brought three more rounds of chemotherapy — less rollercoaster this time. More hope than fear. More encouraging words than whispers about survival rates. On December 3rd, 2020, six months and change after my initial diagnosis, I rang the Victory Bell.

Endometrioid ovarian cancer presents early, which is why the survival rate is so much higher than other ovarian cancer sub-types. The most common presenting symptom with endometrioid ovarian cancer? You guessed it — blood clots. It’s hard to say that I was lucky — but I was lucky. I was lucky to present symptoms that led to an early diagnosis.

I was also lucky because of my fitness level. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, “The harder I work, the more luck I have.” I endured six chemotherapy treatments and surgery with relative ease. I walked as much as could, moved as much as I could, despite the chemo sapping my energy. That strength was evident as I continued to eat well while undergoing treatment.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis during COVID was challenging. I don’t have any family that lives in New York State. My sister and sister-in-law risked their health (and potentially their lives) by coming to deal with everyday household duties and help my wife manage the stress. We didn’t allow anyone else inside the house as my chemotherapy caused grade 2 neutropenia (low white blood cell count). I did acquire a staph infection, but that was quickly cured with antibiotics.

Cancer treatments served as a wake-up call. No one is immune to cancer. Extensive genetic testing (25 different tests) showed a totally run-of-the-mill genetic composition. I’ll spare you the rest of the excess terminology now floating around in my brain.

So — that then begs the ultimate question. Why did I get cancer? My oncologist said I met two major risk factors. I never attempted pregnancy and I was never put on birth control. While doctors had suggested I might consider some form of birth control, I never truly considered myself “at-risk.” Since I’d never attempted pregnancy, I’d also never had a pelvic nor transvaginal ultrasound until my ovarian cancer diagnosis.

In 2018, I noticed my periods grow more irregular, plus mild bloating. In addition, I experienced more frequent urination and some mild pelvic pain every now and again. Don’t take these transitions for granted. My monthly cycles were never ever irregular until 2018. My hope is that one day there will be an accurate screening test for ovarian cancer, but until then, women must advocate for themselves. Have those difficult conversations with gynecological practitioners. Assert themselves when something just doesn’t feel right.

In the short time since becoming cancer-free, I’ve become an advocate for women to document new gynecological symptoms and events and alert their practitioners at every annual appointment. My gynecologist brushed aside some of my new symptoms two years ago and I knew I needed to find a new practitioner… but I kept going back to the same doctor and accepting the same assurances because I let life get in the way. It’s such a common refrain. Take a moment to stop to think about all the things you said you’d do if you just had more time.

This is the time.

Julie Salazar

Julie was diagnosed with Stage 2 ovarian cancer and Stage 1A endometrial cancer in 2020. She was declared disease-free in December of 2020 and is enjoying watching her hair grow back. She lives in Clayton, NY, with her wife and 2 rescue dogs. Her fitness goal is to complete the Empire State Bike Ride in 2021.

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Signs and Symptoms

Ovarian cancer signs and symptoms include:

  • Feeling the need to urinate urgently or often
  • Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Back pain
  • Upset stomach or heartburn
  • Fatigue
  • Constipation or menstrual changes
  • Pain during sex

National Ovarian Cancer Coalition

30 Years of Courage

1991   

NOCC begins as a grassroots organization founded by advocates and survivors in Boca Raton, Florida

 1995   

NOCC incorporates as the country’s first national organization providing awareness and education about ovarian cancer.

1996   

The first national ovarian cancer information hotline is established (1-888-OVARIAN), now averaging 10,000 calls each year.

1998   

NOCC proclaims a week in September “National Ovarian Cancer Week,” with a declaration from President Clinton. “Walk for a Whisper” 5K Walk/Run is initiated.

2000   

NOCC and the ovarian community proclaim September as “National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.”

2002

The organization produces television PSA about early detection and distributes to 30 states.

2003

Ovarian.org received the Oncolink.com Award from OncoLink, the first online cancer resource founded by University of Pennsylvania cancer specialists.

NOCC receives the National Points of Light award in celebration of the success and impact volunteers have made in their communities.

2004

NOCC launches “Body Image/Body Essence” art exhibit by sculptor John Magnan as a tribute to his wife’s journey with ovarian cancer.

2006

NOCC launches the “Break the Silence” national education campaign.

2007

The “Break the Silence” campaign reaches 100M impressions.

NOCC helps launch the first consensus on ovarian cancer symptoms.

2008

NOCC moves its principal place of operation and state of incorporation/registration from Boca Raton, Florida to Dallas, Texas.

NOCC advocates help to double Department of Defense funding for ovarian cancer research to $20M per year.

2009

“Newly Diagnosed Patient Kit” is launched. DVD resource is made available in Spanish and Mandarin; 450,000+ pieces of literature are distributed nationwide.

2010

The Faces of Hope® program and term “Run/Walk to Break the Silence on Ovarian Cancer” are initiated. 

Annual fundraising events are branded “Run/Walk to Break the Silence on Ovarian Cancer®.”

2011

NOCC partners with The Dr. Oz Show to create his Break the Silence on Ovarian Cancer® campaign.

Over 1200 newly diagnosed women receive NOCC’s TEAL PACKET®

The “Ann Schreiber Ovarian Cancer Research Training Program of Excellence: A study by Dr. Ruth Perets” is supported by NOCC with a $50,000 contribution.

2012

NOCC supports quality of life research with the GOG 0225, LIvES Study, which is ongoing and conducted by the University of Arizona Cancer Center.

2013

More than 4,000 Faces of Hope TEAL totes are distributed.

2014

More than 575,000 pieces of education and awareness literature are distributed nationally.

NOCC affirms its commitment to research with the newest  initiative, collaborating with Stand Up to Cancer, Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, and Ovarian Cancer Research Fund to support the “Ovarian Cancer Dream Team.”

NOCC is featured in the highly coveted showcase window at 10 Rockefeller Plaza in midtown Manhattan.

2016

NOCC reaches its milestone 25th anniversary.

NOCC becomes an official charity partner for the New York Marathon and launches its first platform for endurance enthusiasts across the U.S - Team Teal®.

2017

Rejuvenate, the first event of its kind, is introduced by NOCC for survivors as a retreat experience centered around the mind, body and spirit; it later expands to a national series.

Not Knowing is Killing Us is launched as a hard-hitting national awareness campaign. 

2018  

NOCC's signature Run/Walk Series is rebranded and Together in Teal® Ending Ovarian Cancer is brought to life in communities across the nation.  

2019

Team Teal®, NOCC's endurance platform, expands internationally with participants in Greece and Canada.  

Together in Teal® Ending Ovarian Cancer is hosted at New York City's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, a national historic landmark.

2020

In response to the pandemic, NOCC introduces programming offering relief to women and their caregivers including home meal delivery, Comfort for the Soul, and online professional counseling through Comfort the Mind.  

Teal Hearts Network, a series of regional survivor support groups, commences in a virtual setting.

Together in Teal(R) hosts its first virtual experience, No Boundaries, and unites participants in 50 states and 9 countries.  

Stages of Ovarian Cancer

Stage 1

The cancer is confined to the ovary or fallopian tube

1A - The cancer is confined to one ovary only

1B - The cancer is found on both ovaries

1C - One or both ovaries are found with cancer cells spilling out from the ovaries

1C1 - Accidental rupture of the capsule by the surgeon during surgery

1C2 - Rupture of the capsule occurred before surgery

1C3 - Cancer cells are found in the fluid of the pelvis/abdomen

Stage 2

Growth of the cancer involves one or both ovaries with pelvic extension

2A - Extension of cancer to fallopian tubes or uterus

2B - Extension of cancer to other pelvic organs

Stage 3

Growth of the cancer involves one or both ovaries, and the cancer has spread beyond the pelvis

3A - Microscopic cancer cells found in upper abdomen or lymph nodes

3B - Visible tumor found in upper abdomen less than 2cm in size

3C - Visible tumor found in upper abdomen greater than 2cm in size, including disease on the surface of liver or spleen

Stage 4

The cancer growth is widely spread throughout the body

4A - Cancer is found in the fluid around lung

4B - Cancer is found inside the lungs, liver or spleen

National Ovarian Cancer Coalition

Stages of Ovarian Cancer

Before ovarian cancer - healthy ovaries

Stage 1 - Cancer is confined to one or both ovaries

Stage 2 - Cancer spreads within the pelvic region

Stage 3 - Average stage of diagnoses is stage 3C; cancer spreads to other body parts within the abdomen

Stage 4 - Cancer spreads beyond the abdomen to other body parts

 

National Ovarian Cancer Coalition