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My Story | Cyndee D., Pennsylvania, USA

Ovarian cancer, Stage 3, April 2000 at 42
Sub-optimal debulking surgery, chemotherapy (nine rounds taxol/carboplatin)

Right before the holidays, I noticed I was beginning to gain weight. I was tired all the time, so I hoped this busy time of year would pass by quickly. My back ached, and I tried to explain the pain by telling myself, "Of course I'm tired. I work a 40-hour week and go to school full time. When I'm not at work or school, I am sitting in front of my computer, writing papers or doing assignments. That's enough to wear anyone out and make their back ache." I couldn't wait for the semester to be over. I needed a break.

Christmas came and went, and I dreaded putting the decorations away. "God," I thought, "my back is just killing me. It's got to be that I am just doing way too much, and my body is telling me about it. I think I'll take a pillow to work; maybe it's the chair, or the way I'm sitting at my desk; that should help." It didn't. I remember being in class one Friday night and complaining about the desk (the kind with the chair attached). I felt squished; I was so uncomfortable. No one else was complaining, but my professor actually went into another classroom and brought me a new desk. It didn't help. I still felt like I had to squeeze into it. The other problem I had in this class was that I kept falling asleep. Imagine my embarrassment when the professor would call on me. I must have been listening while I dozed because, luckily, I was able to answer the question once I asked him to repeat it.

At work, things weren't much different. I never fell asleep, but it seemed that, as my body got bigger and my clothes smaller, my boss, and her boss began to notice. One day I was called into the big boss's office. They wanted to address my body language and posture. They did not like the way I was slouching in chairs, and wondered why I was dressing so casually. They said it wasn't like me.

Yes, I was mad. Well, beyond mad, really. I told them I had gained weight and my business suits no longer fit me properly. And as for my posture, it was because of the tremendous back aches I was having. They suggested I go shopping and learn to sit up straight.

One night, as I was lying in bed, I rolled over onto my tummy to get comfortable enough to sleep. As I lay there, I realized I was feeling something in my abdomen. I was experiencing the same sensation as when I was pregnant. I remember feeling sick inside. Since I knew I wasn't pregnant, this meant only one thing. Something else was growing in my abdomen.

It was now early April.

The next day my goal was to get to a gynecologist. This wasn't as easy as I thought. I discovered that the gynecologist given to me by my insurance had retired. I was advised that the other doctors were far too busy to see a new patient with problems. I remember being upset at this. Why are doctors there, I wondered, if not to see patients with problems? I consoled myself by thinking maybe I should be glad these types of doctors were not taking care of me.

Eventually, I found a doctor, but couldn't get an appointment until May 2nd. Easter was early that year, and I was in pain. I couldn't sit, and I couldn't lie down. All I could do was rock back and forth. I ate very little because I quickly felt full and couldn't manage to eat any more, not even water. When I saw my primary care physician (PCP) the next day, she was not able to examine my belly. She ordered a transvaginal sonogram for the next day, and told them she wanted the results, STAT.

"Yes," the technician said, after giving me the ultrasound, "there is a mass." I wasn't surprised with his answer to my question.

"How big?" I asked.

"Well, I can't capture it all on this machine. We need to move you to another one."

The radiologist came in and they whispered. He told me to get dressed and meet him in the conference area. We actually could have skipped this part because I knew what was coming. They paged the doctor I had been scheduled to see on May 2nd.

"Well, how big is it? Is it cancer?" I asked. They told me they couldn't tell from the ultrasound if it was cancer, but what they saw was a mass, 22 centimeters (cm )in size, that would need to be removed as soon as possible. The gynecologist, whom I had never met, walked me to the oncology department. He explained that while he could do the surgery, since he might have to call in the gynecological oncologist (GYN-ONC) anyway, it just made sense to have the GYN-ONC do it. I remember thinking, "He's not kidding me. If he truly thought it was just a mass, he wouldn't be taking me to oncology."

Surgery was planned for May 5th. I had to wait two weeks because a drug I was taking could have caused complications, and it needed to be out of my system. When they finally operated, they found two large masses. One was the size of a volleyball, the other a grapefruit. My rectum and abdomen were lined with a thin, carpet-like covering resembling a layer of fuzzy mold that grows on food when it's too old, and they had to leave a 1 cm tumor on my diaphragm. It was too close to the vena cava to remove. So there it was - all out in the open. I had cancer, advanced cancer. It was Stage 3c ovarian cancer, and I was sure I was going to die!

I thought of all the things I was going to miss, most especially my children getting married and having children of their own. Oh, how I wanted to be a grandmother; to hold the babies, rock them to sleep, and just cuddle with them. Now, I would never know what it would be like to grow old, or get my degree. The list went on and on. I felt sorry for myself, and I felt sorrier for my kids. Who would be there for them? Who would guide them? Who would help them when they were in need? I was only 42!

I have never asked, "Why?" My question, rather, was, "Why now?" After years of struggling as a single mother, I finally had a good job with good benefits. And I was so close to finishing my degree. At 21 and 18, the kids were grown, and it was my time to do what I wanted with my life. Cancer had robbed me of my dreams and threatened to rob me of my life. I felt so out of control. As if caught in the center of a tornado, I never had time to stop and think about what was happening.

There was chemo to face next. That was the plan. Although I wasn't even sure I wanted chemo, it was my only hope to put the monster into remission. When I looked into the eyes of my family, I knew I had no other choice. At the very least I had to try to fight it, and if that meant being bald and sick (but alive), then I had to do it.

My first experience with chemo was frightening. I had an allergic reaction to the taxol, and the treatment had to be stopped immediately. The next two treatments were done in the intensive care unit so they could desensitize me. When this proved to be successful, I was given a total of nine rounds of a taxol/carboplatin combination. I had an allergic reaction to the carboplatin during my last treatment, but it worked. I am in remission.

Once I learned the facts about ovarian cancer, I was better equipped to gain some control of my life. I arranged my treatments around my class schedule. There were times my class mates literally helped me up the stairs, while someone else carried my things. I decided not to let a "little thing" like cancer stand in my way. It had taken me a total of 26 years to graduate, but this past spring, one year after my diagnosis, I received my Bachelor's degree in Psychology.

I arranged a vacation after graduation, and swam with the dolphins in the Florida Keys. I also got a tattoo. I have done more in the year of my diagnosis than I did in the previous 42 years of my life.

Today, most of my time and energy is spent promoting ovarian cancer awareness and educating women about this terrible disease. Yes, there is life after cancer, after chemo, after baldness. You may not look at your life the same way you did before cancer, but you will definitely learn to appreciate it.

August 2001

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