Cindi Collins, Cleveland, OH

Cindi-and-AngelI’ll be the first to admit that stress is not something I handle well. I consider myself to be an over achiever with a strong personal work ethic.
In the summer of 2005, I was assigned the task of working with a cross functional project team to address a specific situation/opportunity my company was experiencing. This project required considerable data gathering, in depth analysis and attention to detail, over and above my normal day to day job requirements. Stakeholder and steering committee presentations were part of the process and at one point; the team was sequestered in a room that looked like a war zone with flow charts, business models and paper over-flowing from every conceivable angle. Think about the television show The Apprentice and you’ll get an inkling of what I’m referring to.
Over the course of the next six weeks, project specific deliverables enveloped me and tested the limits in terms of what a normal person can handle in the way of stress. To make matters worse, I was chosen to lead the initiative which placed even more burden on my narrow shoulders. In the end, based on my personal efforts, 127 hours of overtime were devoted to the project (without pay of course since I’m considered an exempt employee). I worked diligently, seven days a week, oftentimes 12-13 hour days, including a holiday. To this day, all I have to show for my efforts is a diagnosis of Stage IIIC Ovarian Cancer. No one in the world can convince me that this was not the root cause of how I contracted this dreaded and insidious disease. The level of stress I experienced compromised my immune system making it highly vulnerable. I remember thinking that I was experiencing a nervous breakdown. My parents were both worried and even tried to give me valium to calm me down. I joke sometimes that I never learned the word “no” when I was a toddler so giving up was not an option.
About a year later, in the summer of 2006, I began to develop what I’ll refer to as “non-standard” symptoms.
Exactly two days before the onset of my menstrual cycle, I began to experience a strange sensation in the base of my spine. It felt as though worms were crawling around accompanied by a subtle occasional throbbing feeling. I can’t stress enough how subtle these symptoms were but I knew that something was off. Two days later, the symptoms vanished as quickly as they appeared as my menses ensued. Being the anal person that I am, I casually jotted the date down on my calendar. This bizarre two day off kilter event reoccurred the next month and the month after that. From my perspective, its three strikes and you’re out so I made an appointment with my OB-GYN.
Upon my arrival, my gynecologist listened patiently as I explained my concerns. He performed the standard examination and proceeded to tell me that I was fine and to go home. I was not convinced. I wasn’t prepared to be dismissed so easily. I proceeded to tell him in no uncertain terms that if there is one thing I know, it’s my body. I convinced him to perform a second pelvic exam and the second time; he poked and prodded producing much pain and pressure. Low and behold, he felt a mass behind the uterus on the left side. Had I not persisted, I wouldn’t be alive today.
A transvaginal ultrasound revealed a tumor approximately the size of a baseball. A CA-125 blood test revealed elevated cancer antigens measuring 546, well above the normal range of 35 or less. A radical hysterectomy was needed and soon. I was believed to have endometriosis. There was only a 20% chance that cancer was the culprit. Somehow, I knew what the outcome would be.
Due to the holidays, surgery could not be performed until about a month later. Post-surgery, the tumor was removed which had grown to the size of a grapefruit. The disease had also begun to spread to my lymphatic system. Extensive lymph node dissection was performed. Chemotherapy treatments were eminent.
Since 2007, I’ve been in and out of remission four times. Each time a recurrence was suspected, I’ve been able to feel it before screening tests could confirm my suspicions.
I’ve had countless infusions (50 plus) of various tongue twisting, six syllable toxic chemotherapy drugs. I even underwent a second look surgery with targeted internal beam radiation therapy but that didn’t work either. The cancer cells are highly aggressive with molecular sequencing seemingly impossible to kill. I’m currently participating in my second clinical trial in the hopes of finding a magic bullet. My current treatment regimen includes a biological agent targeted at over stimulating my immune system response.
I have no intentions of ever giving up. I’m too stubborn and head strong. My faith in GOD has always and will continue to guide my steps. He is my refuge and the source of my strength. I want to be a source of strength for others. I believe in my heart that the cure is right around the corner. I just hope and pray that I’ll be alive long enough to see that wonderful day come to pass.