While the world was navigating Covid and its fallout, my family and I were battling my diagnosis of Stage 2 ovarian cancer. I underwent chemotherapy beginning in October 2020 and ending in February 2021. It was a profound learning experience- multiple surgeries, side effects, and lots of uncertainty.
Like many, my family health history did not include ovarian cancer – or at least for a long time, I wasn’t aware of it. However, oddly enough, my maternal aunt, who died of a stroke after having severe blood pressure issues, did have ovarian cancer – which was only discovered during an autopsy. Still, ovarian cancer wasn’t on my radar, as they say, and I did not show any known risk per genetic testing. In my mid-late 30s/early 40’s, I underwent multiple Intrauterine insemination and in vitro fertilization procedures (so I took lots of hormones) to have children, which were all unsuccessful. When I started having significant issues with uterine bleeding and pain, I opted for a uterine ablation in 2015. Fast forward to August 2020, when I decided to undergo a hysterectomy to remove my uterus due to hematometra (uterus filling with blood and causing discomfort). It was supposed to be a simple surgery. I went into surgery joking with my doctor that I expected to be thin, rich, and beautiful when I awoke. Instead, I woke up to her explaining that they had not completed the surgery as planned because they had found a suspicious mass and decided to do a biopsy only at that time rather than the scheduled hysterectomy.
When I received the news, my mind instantly reacted with, “I knew it” …I knew it was cancer, and I wasn’t surprised. They later determined it was Stage 1 from the biopsy, and they were hopeful that I would not need chemotherapy. So, I went off to heal from the biopsy surgery, and on September 30, 2020, I underwent the removal of my internal female organs (uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries), along with some lymph nodes and my omentum. Unfortunately, my “differentiated endometrial cancer” had advanced from Stage 1 to Stage 2 and attached from my left ovary to my pelvic wall between August and September 2020.
My new oncologist called to discuss the plan of care and explained that I would need chemotherapy to fight my cancer. I was focused on the fact that I was going to feel horrible and that I would lose my hair. My mom and husband were with me, and they kind of looked at me and said, “That’s what you are worried about?” I believe your mind protects you from what you can process at a given time, so instead of thinking, “Am I going to die?” I thought, “I don’t want to lose my hair!” Six chemotherapy infusions later, I would finish treatment in February 2021.
There were times I didn’t recognize my own body. I was bruising easily and looked like I had been beaten up, but I finally got to the point where I resolved it is what it is, and the person who was concerned with losing their hair, in the beginning, wore a wig for about ten minutes total and set it aside! I began to set goals of getting through one phase at a time, and as each week passed, I would treat myself to a new scarf to wear. One of the biggest challenges for me mentally was this happened during the height of the Covid pandemic, and I felt very isolated and had “FOMO” – the fear of missing out – which was not too much since no one could leave their homes for most of the time. But when there is something that is beyond your control that limits you, the feeling of isolation heightens. So, the challenge wasn’t what was happening to me externally. Still, internally – I had always thought I was grounded and ‘didn’t sweat the small stuff’ – but cancer will show you instantly what truly matters in life and will shift your focus immediately to what is essential. The ‘I’ll eat better later or exercise later’ became a ‘now’ situation.
For people who know my story, on the surface, it doesn’t sound so bad. Just six rounds of chemo (not bad, right?) – early-stage cancer (that’s not bad, and certainly could be worse, right?). But that saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is true, in many cases, and with ovarian cancer, sometimes it’s the side effects and what happens in addition to the actual treatment that can be debilitating, scary, and well – horrific. Yes, I had nausea and fatigue, was bruised, had incisions that were healing, and looked beaten up, but I also had vaginal dehiscence occur. If you look up the definition, you will find, “vaginal cuff dehiscence is a rare, but potentially morbid, complication of total hysterectomy (surgical removal of the uterus and cervix). When vaginal cuff dehiscence occurs, abdominal or pelvic contents are at risk of evisceration (expulsion) through the vaginal opening.” Essentially parts of my body that were supposed to stay inside came outside of my body.
I was rushed to a local Emergency Department by my husband, then to Indiana University Medical Center by ambulance. It was quite a trip. I’d waited 4 hours at a small Emergency Department with morphine that didn’t touch the pain. The family was not allowed inside because of Covid. Wet wrappings were placed on my “insides” – that were hanging outside of me, and I finally made it to meet my husband and the surgical team, which included my oncologist. Post-surgery, I was at risk for a colostomy bag and was treated with multiple antibiotics, and suffered from many gut issues, which are too numerous to count. The loss of hair concern I once had paled in comparison to what was happening to me. The pain, neuropathy, and gut issues following were intense. I had bone pain from shots to improve my white blood count and neutropenia, which was truly one of the most painful experiences of my life. There were times the pain was so intense that I couldn’t be upright. I would gingerly get down on my hands and knees because my head hurt so badly, and would walk on “all fours” to get where I needed to go.
I found myself counting a lot more than usual. Counting the days I had to go until the next chemo zap, counting medications, counting days left on restrictions, and much more. One of the most significant daily counts I made was counting the stairs to ascend/descend at home and at the Indiana University Health Simon Cancer Center. There were 16 stairs to navigate at home and 26 in the lobby. I didn’t want to take the elevator, and I never did. And I remember that our kitchen was undergoing some renovations at the time of all of this– which were taking much longer to complete because of the pandemic. I had to somehow get myself down a flight of 16 stairs to use the bathroom in the basement, as well as for a small kitchen we had there. I could only take one step at a time -and it took me a very long time to get myself down a step. One foot down….stop…. breath… next foot down… stop… breath… and continue. At home, especially after every round of chemo, usually days 3-6, it took a VERY LONG time to get up and down those 16 stairs. But I was determined to try not to stay in bed all day, so I took those steps, no matter how long it took me.
Cancer, that’s behind me now. Praise God! I am well again and ready to put one foot in front of the other to climb the estimated 24,915 “stairs” to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro with Team Teal. I realize that there is life on the other side of cancer, it is a reckoning, and a mindset to sometimes get through a given moment, let alone an hour, a day, or even the end of treatment. But it will happen. It can. It will. What started off with worrying about my hair became worrying if I would ever be able to leave the house and have the normal function as a person. But it happened by the grace of God! So, what can I do to help others get through a moment and realize it can be done, even when they are on their hands and knees? I’ll do anything, even something as crazy as climbing the world’s highest free-standing mountain, to get attention, and from that attention, share my story, and raise funds to support ovarian cancer because that needs it. My climb, along with your support, will help fund services like meal delivery to those in treatment, professional counseling, peer to peer support (when someone can’t get out of their house but needs to be able to connect with others in their situation!), and financial support to those who are in need and research – that is what the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition does. They are there when you need them most – and afterward when you want to find a way to give back.
On July 4th, I will begin a new climb with a team of 15 people dedicated to making a difference with their miles with TEAM TEAL. I’ll apply that same mentality that took me from my hands and knees to the steps one at a time to now climbing the estimated 24,000+ steps to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. Patience – one step at a time – I know I have it in me, and I will make it, just like I made it through ovarian cancer.
Angela lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, with her husband. She has raised over $20,000 to support the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition and is on her way to being the top survivor fundraiser for NOCC Team Teal. To read more or support Angela, visit her fundraising page here.