When I was 20 years old, I thought I was invincible and unstoppable, and dare I say, a bit oblivious to the hardships that can happen throughout life. But all those thoughts and feelings changed after a trip to the emergency room for pain in my right lower abdomen that I had been experiencing. The pain would be what was thought to be a cyst, and two weeks later, I was sent into surgery, thinking that was all it was. However, waking up in the PACU, I clearly remember a doctor looking over me and saying, “We think it might be cancer, and we will send the biopsy out for further testing.” It wouldn’t be for two more weeks that I finally learned I had ovarian cancer. I was told not to go online and look at information – and I didn’t, thanks to slow internet service at the time. This was 17 years ago, and the internet wasn’t like it was today. It’s the one piece of advice I am truly thankful I listened to. My results took two weeks due to uncertainty if the cancer was a juvenile or adult form. And the results confirmed a diagnosis of Juvenile Granulosa Cell Tumor. My mother was with me when I got the news and instantly began to cry. And for me, I remember thinking that I knew God wouldn’t put anything in my path that I couldn’t handle and that I would get through this – somehow – and there must be a reason for all of this.
Still, at age 20, it really didn’t sink in what was happening or what would happen to me and how life would change. Yes, I had one ovary removed and one remaining, but it wasn’t until my first appointment with the oncologist that it sunk in and the enormity truly hit me. I walked into a waiting room of people with wigs, some bald, some in wheelchairs. My hand shook, trying to find my insurance card, and for the first time, I had to circle the word ‘cancer’ as part of my health history. I realized this was now with me for life. But here is that word ‘lucky’ you will hear in the cancer world. I was ‘lucky’ to be diagnosed with Stage 1a ovarian cancer, which was confined, and I would not need radiation or chemotherapy. But I didn’t feel lucky at all. My life changed instantly, and due to the early stage and no treatment, many thought I was fine – I was in the clear – and didn’t need support. So, I was left to go through this journey alone for the first nine years. I drove 4.5 hours one way to my follow-up appointments every three months – because others viewed it as ‘just a doctor’s appointment.’ I battled with insurance companies as a twenty-year-old, I tried to keep up paying co-pays that were amassing quickly, I was sent to collections, and did what most people do, maxed out student loans to pay for the blood work, ultrasounds, CT scans, medical appointments. To this day, it is hard to understand sometimes, and it gets me emotional. But no one understands what you go through as someone with a cancer diagnosis, the support you need – other than someone with cancer.
So that ‘lucky girl’ (me!) underwent genetic testing seven years later. My results showed a genetic mutation of the BRCA gene of unknown origin and Lynch Syndrome, which puts me at a higher risk for many other cancers, including ovarian, uterine, colon, pancreatic, brain, skin, liver, and stomach cancer. Due to this finding, it was decided my second ovary would be removed. Instantly my world changed again – the reality that I was losing the ability to have a child naturally came crashing down. The thought of harvesting and saving my eggs was discussed, but there was a 50% chance I would pass along the genetic mutation to my child, and each egg would need to be DNA tested – which was something I could not afford at that time. I made the difficult decision not to try to save any eggs. In my heart, I held onto my faith, and I knew God would bring children into my life one day… somehow. At age 32, I underwent a complete hysterectomy. Today, I continue to be followed by five different oncologists to keep a careful watch over everything I am at risk for, and this includes an annual colonoscopy. If you want tips on a colonoscopy, I’m your gal!
Fast forward to 2020, when the pandemic began. This forced me to slow down and take courses for something I had always wanted, even as a child, to become a foster parent! In 2021, I became a foster mom to my first ‘kiddo’! I now have had the privilege of giving my time, my heart, and my love, to three little ones. And my family, we are good! But my journey makes me wish that NOCC and the teal community were part of my story from the beginning when I desperately needed that support. I’ve joined NOCC Team Teal to raise awareness of ovarian cancer and get the word out about the wonderful services and programs NOCC offers. No one should ever be alone in their cancer journey – and if you are, just call the NOCC. They and ‘the teal sisters’ will be there for you.
Why Kilimanjaro? I always referred to my cancer experience as climbing a mountain. It can be big, scary, daunting, and you never know what you might find around the corner. You can fall, get scraped, and banged up along the climb, but there is HOPE to get to the top! When I heard Team Teal was heading with its first group to Mount Kilimanjaro, I thought it was surreal to possibly have the opportunity to live this vision, which up to now, had been an analogy for me. I also want to show others there is HOPE, and yes, your life will change with an ovarian cancer diagnosis, but your ‘new’ life post-cancer can be special and very meaningful- just put one foot in front of the other! Wish me luck this July as myself and TEAM TEAL, bring HOPE to new heights!
Jessica lives in Texas with her 2 dogs, and her foster child affectionately referred to as ‘little man’.
To read more or support Jessica with her TEAM TEAL endeavor, visit her fundraising page here.