New Realities . . .
I have had a blessed and fortunate life. It doesn't matter that I have chosen not to have a relationship with my father or that my huge extended family has recently fallen apart or that my grandfather, with whom I was extremely close, passed away tragically a few years ago. It doesn't matter that we haven't bought a house or had a baby or traveled to all of the places I've dreamed of going. It doesn't matter that I have to deal with diabetes and insulin pumps and poking my fingers a dozen times each and every day. None of this matters. Because I am here. And I am surrounded by love. And this is something I need to remind myself of each and every day from here on out . . .
A wise, wonderful friend who, incidentally, has beaten cancer (twice), wrote to me recently that "any brush with cancer is scary." She spoke these words to me in the moments before I knew that the emotion I was feeling in the depths of my soul was fear. Like I said, a wise and wonderful friend.
About three and a half weeks ago, I went in for my scheduled surgery. After years of not getting pregnant and months of medication to shrink ovarian endometriomas (chocolate cysts) and a failed aspiration of those cysts, I was referred to a gynecologic oncologist to have an exploratory laparotomy to remove whatever mass had made itself at home inside of me. My hope and prayer was that the surgeon would be able to remove the benign mass (the pathology from the aspiration was benign), take a look around, and tell me everything was fine and to go about my life as planned. There were days leading up to surgery when I would turn to Chris and say things like "what if they don't find anything" or "what if it suddenly disappeared and they are doing this for nothing." After all we had already been through in 2011, it didn't seem unrealistic to think that they would go in and find something other than what they expected. I just didn't think that that something would include the words ovarian cancer.
I remember laying in the recovery room after surgery and hearing one of the residents hand me off to the recovery room nurse and explaining what they had done during surgery. The words "unilateral oophorectomy" still stand out in my mind. They had had to take one of my ovaries. I wondered why but was focused on trying to breathe and push the pain management button every 8 minutes and so I couldn't really ask. It wasn't until I was resting in my hospital room several hours later that I found out what had transpired during surgery.
After opening me up, my doctor was able to cleanly remove the large tumor that was filling my left ovary. From the looks of things, he felt that the tumor was benign and began the tedious work of reconstructing my ovary, as we'd discussed previously, so that my dreams of childbearing would still have the greatest chances of coming true. Of course, I also knew going in to surgery that it was very possible that there would be endometriosis and that I might wake up to find out that my problems extended beyond the ovaries. The surgeon, however, did not see any signs of endometriosis and was pleased to see that my problems seemed confined to that one ovary. While he worked on the reconstruction, the tumor was sent to pathology and, just as he was finishing up the reconstruction, he was called to look at the tumor under a microscope. It was at that point that the decision was made to remove the ovary. There were signs of malignancy in the tumor and the only way to be sure that they had gotten all of the malignant cells was to take that ovary.
In the days and visits from the doctor that followed during my hospital stay, I still didn't have a clear understanding of whether or not it was cancer. The doctor had initially said that chemo and radiation were not likely and that he felt they had successfully removed all of the malignant cells.
Two weeks later, I went back to the hospital to have my staples removed. During that visit, the physician assistant explained the final pathology report and confirmed that the tumor, in fact, was ovarian cancer. The ovary was also analyzed by pathology and was completely free of abnormalities so the cancer was completely contained in the tumor. The prognosis was good and the chances of me needing chemo, she said, were pretty low but that the doctor would make the final decision closer to my next meeting with him at the end of January.
In the past several days, my emotions have been all over the place. I know part of that can be blamed on the fact that my body is trying to heal and is also dealing with the loss of certain hormones caused by the ovary removal. But, regardless of hormones, I go from feeling extremely grateful and praising God for the blessing of the path he helped us navigate to get this taken care of while it was relatively minor to completely flipping to a place of utter confusion and, yes, fear. The next minute, I feel inspired and empowered to help other young women find this disease in the early stages.
It's difficult for me to understand why I am feeling compelled to spread this news beyond my immediate family and close circle of friends—my typical support system. Most likely, now that the tumor and ovary are gone, I have very little to worry about in terms of the spread of cancer. I'll have checkups with blood tests and imaging and a physical every six months for probably 10 years and know that they will watch me closely.
There is a saying that resonates quite deeply with me these days: Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. I think that until these past few weeks, I was never quite as aware as I should have been about how true that saying is. I am finding myself to be more full of compassion than ever before. However cliche it may be, I am also realizing that there is much truth in the idea that it is difficult to truly understand what someone is going through until you've walked in their shoes . . . or at least some similar shoes. I have been finding, throughout my recovery, that those who have been there for me in the way in which I've needed comfort have tended to be those who have been through a major illness or who have been close to someone who has before. Not to say that those who haven't been there themselves haven't been of great comfort to me as well . . . it's just that there's a different level of understanding. With someone who has been there, there is understanding even in the things left unspoken.
With one friend who is a 6-year survivor of ovarian cancer and another who has recently entered palliative care for it, I have certainly seen and heard how devastating, debilitating, and yes, deadly, this disease can be. Knowing that it can strike someone in her 20s, like me, and knowing what the disease can do if left undetected really makes me feel like I need to do something about it. I don't know quite what yet . . . but don't be surprised if you see me trying to figure it out here every once in a while.
So many of you have been so supportive of me during this time. Thank you for your words of encouragement and your emails and Flickr messages while I recover. I have been so touched by your concern even though you didn't really know what was going on. It never ceases to amaze me how loving this community can be!
So, blessings to you, my friends! I am personally praying that 2012 is full of happy adventures for us all!