Stories of Hope
Woman sharing their stories of fighting against gynecological cancers provide insight and hope for those who are newly diagnosed or undergoing treatment.
I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer five days after my high school graduation. The first of many questions that popped into my head when I heard I had cancer was, will I still be able to go to the Pearl Jam concert tomorrow night? Well, I did end up going, and it was great! However, halfway through the song "Alive" I broke down. How could I have cancer? An eighteen year old with cancer just doesn't make sense. How could I have been walking around for months with this cancer in me without having a clue? It wasn't fair and didn't make sense. All I wanted to do was cry and pity myself. Then I felt so pathetic for pitying myself that I got all worked up again. I went through a vicious cycle!
Eddie Vedder was singing about how he lived through the lowest of lows, and I couldn't even handle Stage I cancer? He made it through rough times and so could I. In that moment, it might sound weird, but I truly felt alive. I was given life to show how strong I can be and how much I can help the world. I have people who love me unconditionally, and I want to cry over some little disease trying to get in my way? Heck, no! I was going to show everyone that I could still be the same happy kid that I had always been and always plan to be.
I may have come to my own terms with the disease, but I didn't think about my family. The cancer wasn't just affecting me. My parents, my brother, my friends and their parents were all affected by the news too. I could see that they were scared and unsure. I made it my job to reassure them that I was fine. And when I couldn't fake the confidence that I would be fine, I would just laugh. I don't think it concealed my uncertainties, but it sure made me feel better. All I wanted was for everyone and everything to be better.
I got cancer by chance; I had exercised regularly, never smoked, and ate relatively well. It still bothers me that I had no control over this strange occurrence, but it happened and I am even stronger because of it. I don't think I'll ever get over the paranoia that it can come back any day. If I didn't know that I had it in the first place, how will I know if it's back? But every day I think about it less, and I know that some day I won't think about it at all. My scars constantly remind me to live life to the fullest. That's the best advice I was given during that awful summer, and I plan on staying true to that and spreading the word.
"Hi, this is Laura McClellan. I need to make an appointment for an annual exam and PAP smear." This conversation marked the beginning of a year with more firsts than I thought a sixty-year old could have.
As a working mother of two adult children, and wife of an executive, I have generally been busy balancing many chores and responsibilities. Despite that, I have faithfully taken time to schedule physical exams, get allergy shots, take walks, exercise, and eat healthy. 2008 was no exception. That year would be marked by the news that I had metastatic cervical cancer.
Six months prior to getting the news, I had gotten a PAP smear result that said there weren't enough cells to evaluate. Since I had never had an abnormal PAP smear I wasn't worried when I had to return for the repeat PAP about six months later. I still wonder if those 6 months would have made the difference between catching it early or finding that it had already spread. Would earlier treatment have been able to keep it from spreading? I will never know.
The doctors recommended concurrent chemotherapy and radiation. This required blood tests, measurements, tattoos, scheduling, and various other preparations to prepare for treatment. I was overwhelmed as I looked at the schedule but was so blessed to have family and friends who supported me through the maze of events that I would endure. Each week there was one goal, to get through this week's treatments. There were a total of six cycles of chemotherapy combined with 35 external beam radiation treatments. Then there were 5 additional internal radiation treatments and 5 "coned-down" radiation treatments. It took nearly 9 weeks to complete. My goal was to finish all my treatments before my daughter, her husband, and my son arrived for the holidays. After all, I was still "Mom" and celebrating with my family was a tradition of 28 years that I wasn't willing to change.
Although my family remained concerned, I was happy to be off of treatments. I needed a break from treatments, the stress, and the " what ifs." I insisted I was not going to worry until my follow-up scan in three months.
In February of 2008 I had my follow-up CT scan. This prompted another scan known as a PET-CT scan. The cat was out of the bag. I had recurrent, metastatic disease.
My family and friends rallied around me again. I took a long hiatus from my job, giving up my full-time position to be fair to my clients and to focus my energy on healing. This time there would be six cycles of chemotherapy given every 21 days. Oh yes, I will lose my hair this time, but that's hardly an issue as I dragged my husband and my closest friend to the hair shop to have my head shaved the week before treatments began. While part of me was terrified, I was also optimistic.
Looking Back and Looking Forward
I remember asking my doctor what I had missed and what other tests I should I have sought out. His answer was that I had been very careful and all the right tests were done. But unfortunately the tests are not perfect and false negative results can occur meaning that the test falsely states that everything is okay. I went on a campaign to inform all of my friends around the world by e-mail, post, and phone. I encouraged all to make sure they get PAP smears and exams on time. I send them everything I find on cervical cancer prevention, screening, diagnosis, and treatments from Internet searches that my son and I now routinely perform.
The birth of the Up the Volume Foundation to raise money to support major research on gynecological cancers is exciting and encouraging. I am especially interested in finding better ways to prevent or to detect gynecologic cancers earlier. My daughter was vaccinated with the new HPV vaccine shortly after it was released to the public. Although it doesn't protect against all of the viruses that may cause cervical cancer, it gives us both peace of mind. She also has encouraged her peers to be proactive.
The gift of life extends beyond me and motherhood. This Foundation is an opportunity to pay it forward. The research supported by this foundation will not change my current treatment or reduce my current concerns but it will change the quality and efficacy of gynecologic care for my daughter and future generations. There is no time to delay. Today is the day to move forward.
When my gynecologist referred me to a cancer specialist for a mass on my ovary, I didn't want to believe that my worst fear was possibly coming true. I was afraid. I tried to put it out of my mind, but it was all that I could think about. How much time did I have?
Being strong to protect my family was difficult, but their support for me was apparent. They encouraged me not to think the worst and to understand that no matter what I had to go through, we would get through it together. I prayed for strength and courage.
I spoke to my pastor, who prayed with me. I went to work every day, trying to keep things as if they were normal. A friend of mine at work was a great comfort to me because she had been treated for cancer years ago and was doing fine. Eventually it was time to meet Dr. Silver, my gynecologic oncologist. He spent a good deal of time with me on my first visit. He explained that I would need an operation. This included a lengthy discussion about the risks and all the possible procedures that could take place if he found that I did in fact have ovarian cancer. It was a great help to me and my family to know what to expect. I felt very confident in him and I knew I was in good hands.
I went into the surgery feeling that everything would be okay as I had support from everyone close to me. When I woke up it was difficult to hear that I did have cancer. The good news, however, was that I did very well through the operation and that all the cancer that was seen was removed. It is hard to express the relief I felt when I heard those words.
I got through chemotherapy treatments without any problems, and with the support and expertise of my doctor and his staff. Between each chemotherapy session, if I felt well I went to work part time. It was very helpful to try to keep a normal routine. It kept my mind on other things aside from my cancer.
The most important message that I can relay to others about my experience is that even when you are faced with a challenge that at first looks insurmountable, with the help of friends, family, experts in the field, and prayer, you can rise to the occasion and SURVIVE.
The power of prayer does work. I kept the faith and God saw me through it all. Now that I am free of cancer, I live my life to the fullest. I understand that my cancer could return but this will not keep me from enjoying my life, family, friends, or my faith.