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 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.