What you see in this picture is the face of ovarian cancer. It is my face, yet as I look at the photograph, I am a stranger to myself with the chemo driven hairstyle and gaunt cheeks. I am writing this because even in the year 2013, ovarian cancer remains a vague, faceless stranger to most of us. (Thank God!) But if you received its calling card this last year—and there were 22,000 women in the United States who did—ovarian cancer suddenly becomes very personal and very scary, much like a wild ride on a dark night.
When my doctor said the words, “Mary, it looks like you have ovarian cancer,” my thoughts immediately turned to my children. They are the five best gifts of my life, and my ovaries had given them to me. I remember babbling on to reassure the doctor that it was okay if my ovaries had run amok a bit lately. They certainly deserved to be cut a little slack, since they had done truly magnificent work for so many years.
My next thoughts travelled stream-of-consciousness to sweet and lovely Gilda Radner. Wasn’t this the disease that took her down so very young in the 1980′s? For many women of my generation, ovarian cancer and Gilda Radner had become synonymous.
The challenges and difficulties that go hand-in-hand with treating ovarian cancer soon became apparent to me. Following my diagnosis, I was sent to a university hospital to see a Gynecological Oncologist—”Gyne-Onc” for short, a label that I never warmed up to, since it always sounded like some kind of goose or water fowl. The doctor at the university described a treatment plan to me that would begin with a surgical procedure unceremoniously called “debulking.” His pep talk about the surgery left me feeling like I was soon to be hollowed out like a Halloween pumpkin.
After a rocky post-surgical course, I transitioned into the next phase of treatment for ovarian cancer: chemotherapy. There are not words to adequately describe the apprehension that cancer patients feel knowing that a poison is about to run into their veins. Intellectually, I think we all understand that we must have the chemo drugs to kill the cancer cells, yet it is still difficult to accept that other things in our bodies will be damaged and crippled by the power of the drugs. Our hair, our energy for normal daily activities, and our bone marrow often become casualties of the chemo assault on our cells.
Many ovarian cancer patients also receive a specialized form of chemotherapy referred to as “intraperitoneal.” This is a grueling treatment that my body could only endure one time. During the procedure, chemo drugs are administered directly into the abdomen via a port. Every 15 minutes for 2 hours, the patient must be turned from side to side so that the drugs can slosh around and coat the abdomen. My sister-in-law referred to this type of chemo as “Shake and Bake,” and that’s all I have to say about that.
Most ovarian cancer patients have six to eight rounds of chemotherapy during their initial phase of treatment. Following this, we are closely monitored for recurrence of the disease. Unfortunately, in the case of ovarian cancer, the question isn’t “Will the cancer recur?” but rather “When will the cancer recur?” I didn’t have to ponder this question too long as my cancer showed signs of recurrence within four months of completing the first round of treatment. So now it is on to round two of treatment with a drug that is referred to as “second line chemotherapy.” For me, the verdict is still out as to how effective this drug will be.
Much remains unknown about ovarian cancer, and many women continue to be uninformed about its warning signs. While pink ribbons abound to spread awareness about breast cancer, most ovarian cancer patients don’t even know our color. (Are we teal???) Yet ovarian cancer silently and somberly continues to wreak havoc on women’s lives. The median age for diagnosis is 63 years, a time when most women are anticipating retirement. It often strikes just as women are beginning new and beloved roles as grandmothers. We may be blessed to cuddle our grandbabies as newborns, but ovarian cancer statistics show that the odds are against us standing at the bus stop on their first day of kindergarten. Many of us have spouses, and we are saddened by the reality that we will not be able to care for them in their time of need as they grow old. We promised at our weddings to be there in sickness and in health. We took these vows seriously, yet cancer will prevent many of us from honoring our vows and joining our spouses on their final journeys.
All of this sounds sad and tinged with negativity. It would be wrong and misleading to end on this note because ovarian cancer has brought many positive things to my life. I have been fortunate to have a spouse and children who have become exceedingly able and tender caregivers. My illness has helped us learn how to have fun together as a family again: evening Scrabble games . . . springtime planting of flowers and vegetables . . . moments that have become precious because we don’t know how long they will last. We have found ourselves giving voice to emotions that had been pushed beneath the surface. How liberating and beautiful to say “I love you” every time our hearts fill to bursting with that feeling! We are blessed.
Ovarian cancer is not a club to which I ever aspired to belong. It is true that it is fairly exclusive, but the dues are exacting and the cost is high. It is my deepest hope that in the near future much-needed research will be done and more effective treatments will be developed for my daughters and for the next generation of women who face this complicated, enigmatic disease. The five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer is less than half of that for breast cancer: 43% to 90%. This is not acceptable. It is time to work at improving these odds. We are worth it, and our sisters, our daughters, and our granddaughters are worth it.