When I received chemotherapy and lost my hair, I never bothered with a wig and always just wore a bandana or scarf. In one of my early chemo treatments, while I was waiting to be called back to the infusion room, a man sitting next to me touched my arm to get my attention. Given my bandana and that we were in an oncologist office, he knew that I had cancer.
The man was missing part of his jaw, and he struggled to speak, but he was insistent on telling me that “this,” meaning my cancer, “is just a bump in the road, but there is still a long road ahead.” He said to focus on the road ahead, and just get over the bump.
Until that time, I had looked at cancer as insurmountable. But this man was a survivor. He had been through it, he had walked the walk, and he was right. I was so moved by his words, and so grateful that he took the time to share his wisdom with me, and I’ve tried to pass that on to others as often as I can.
In fact, it is applicable to any challenge that seems insurmountable at the time, not just cancer. Make no mistake, cancer is an awful bump, it really stinks, and it does change your life, but it is often not insurmountable.
My bump in the road started as a large, hard bump in my abdomen that appeared while I was doing yoga in April 2017. A month and a half later, on my 28th wedding anniversary at age 50, I underwent surgery at Jupiter Medical Center, with the talented Dr. Donna Pinelli, and woke up to a stage IIIC ovarian cancer diagnosis. Not our best wedding anniversary—really testing that “in sickness and in health” vow.
My bump in the road was itself very, very bumpy, and I had several serious roadblocks thrown up at me, which I am sure is common in every survivor’s story. But for me, every serious setback has eventually been accompanied by some good fortune, and I find it very beneficial to focus on that good fortune.
After my cancer debulking surgery, my CA125 (the tumor marker for ovarian cancer) was still high, and the doctors suspected that not all the cancerous cells were removed. Even though it is rare for ovarian cancer to travel downward to the groin lymph nodes, my cancer did just that.
After a painful biopsy, I was told that my cancer had metastasized, and was in fact stage IV. This was roadblock number one. My medical oncologist, Dr. Talya Schwarzberg, said that I was “just barely” stage IV, and I understood it could have been worse, but it was stage IV, nonetheless.
Joining a Clinical Trial
However, the fact that my cancer acted “weird” and traveled to an unusual location might have been a good thing. After receiving genetic counseling, I learned that my tumor (but not me) had a genetic mutation.
Because of this mutation, at the end of my treatment I was eligible to enroll in a clinical trial at the University of Miami Sylvester Cancer Center, which was testing a front-line targeted therapy for ovarian cancer.
I was lucky: I am still enrolled in that study, I am still taking that medicine today, and have monthly checkups with Dr. Marilyn Huang.
If I could make a brief public service announcement—I encourage you to visit www.clinicaltrials.gov to see all the clinical trials that are available for you or for a loved one facing a cancer diagnosis. Okay, back on track—we got over my “now stage IV” bump, and charged ahead.
I wanted to be as aggressive as possible with my treatment, and my doctors agreed. I had a second surgery to remove the cancerous lymph nodes in the groin, and I was going to have the most aggressive chemotherapy treatment possible. In addition to the standard chemo infused via an IV port in the chest, I was to have intraperitoneal chemo infused directly into my abdominal cavity via another IV port in my abdomen. It is a difficult and uncomfortable treatment, but I was determined to do whatever was possible.
Roadblock Number 2
That wasn’t meant to be, however, because I soon hit roadblock number 2. The first time the doctors gave me Taxol (paclitaxel), a standard chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, I truly thought I was dying. I had a severe reaction. It felt like a sledgehammer was pounding my head and heart, I fainted, and I even wet my pants. I could not continue to receive Taxol, and its substitute was not approved for use in an abdominal port. My aggressive plan flew out the window, and I was angry and scared.
Looking back, it all turned out for the best, because my allergic reaction to Taxol meant I was approved to receive Abraxane (paclitaxel protein bound), which was an “easier” chemo drug for me. I didn’t have to take Benadryl and steroids before treatment, and it took significantly less time to administer. The new and easier plan did the trick. At the end of this treatment, much to everyone’s surprise, I had no evidence of disease.
A year before I got sick, a friend told me that western North Carolina was going to be in the path of a total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017.
I was excited—what a cool event to experience! I made plans for my family to travel from Florida to see it.
But then, in May 2017, I was diagnosed with cancer, and was scheduled to have chemo every Thursday in August, when the eclipse would be occurring.
I had always been a planner. But cancer forces you to become flexible, and that was a good thing for me. We took a wait-and-see approach, and after my chemo on the Thursday before the eclipse, we got on the road, and drove 700 miles to the North Carolina mountains. We got to experience a once-in-a-lifetime event. It was therapeutic sitting outside in the cool mountain air, and it gave me a sense of being somewhat in control; I didn’t let being sick stop me from my long-term plan.
There was a certain amount of luck involved—the timing of my treatments worked out perfectly—and I am grateful for it. I was not alone in my determination to see the eclipse; several other patients who were undergoing chemo with me and 1 nurse who worked in the chemo room also went with me to see the eclipse.
The following week, the infusion suite was abuzz with talk about how magical and amazing the eclipse was. Never question the healing power of mother nature!
Roadblock Number 3
Shortly after seeing the eclipse, in early September, roadblock number 3 happened: Hurricane Irma. I was receiving chemo every week, and if a hurricane got close to Jupiter, Florida, we knew we would lose power, and I might miss one of my weekly treatments. I didn’t want that to happen, so I made a plan. My fatigue was severe, but I spent days on the phone with my insurance company to get approval to have chemo at Hope Cancer Center in Asheville, North Carolina, with Dr. Ashley Case.
I spent hours on the phone getting the necessary medical records together. We were in the car for days, because most of Florida attempted to evacuate the storm. But we did it. I had my September 14 chemo in Asheville, and we spent the week in the mountains grilling all the tasty food I took from our freezer when we evacuated.
My oncologist’s office and my home were without power for a week, so if I stayed, I would have missed that chemo treatment. Instead, we went up and over the “Hurricane Irma bump” and forged ahead.
In case you haven’t noticed, all my cancer doctors happened to be women. No offense to male doctors, but I think that is cool and worth pointing out.
In the amount of time between my cancer diagnosis and today, I have suffered some major roadblocks and tragic losses. At the same time, though, I look back on my life and realize how unbelievably lucky I am.
I am lucky that 22 years ago my husband and I decided to move to Jupiter, a relatively small town, but one that has a world class hospital and organizations such as HOW: Hearing the Ovarian Cancer Whisper (www.howflorida.org), which supports ovarian research and women with ovarian cancer, and Bluewater Babes (https://bluewaterbabes.org), which provides support for women with breast or ovarian cancer.
I am lucky that I have good health insurance, and I’m lucky that I was born into and married into a loving and supportive family.
I am lucky that I got to celebrate my 30 years of marriage with Scott just this past May, at Jupiter Beach Resort instead of Jupiter Medical Center. I am lucky that 3 wonderful young adults call me Mom. I am lucky to have friends, near and far, who supported me and continue to do so today. Finally, in my cancer journey, I am lucky to have made new caring friends, who are fellow survivors, doctors, nurses, and others.
Life Is More Vivid Now
Although it sounds like a cliché, having cancer has enhanced my appreciation of life. When I experience a tragedy or learn of very bad news, I allow myself time to grieve, to feel sad, to feel angry; then, I try to direct my focus toward the positive, and be grateful for what I have. I am more aware and appreciative. I want to celebrate everything—I dance ridiculously and sing loudly when I hear a good band or attend a wedding.
I make a lot of toasts when at a party. I always tip musicians, because music makes life better. I try to make more time with my friends and not just let the busyness of life get in the way. I smile at strangers and strike up conversations. I cry easily, happy tears and sad tears, and feel the relief crying brings me. I enjoy the challenge of my job, and don’t mind having to work late. I breathe deeply and enjoy the beauty of my backyard. I savor the feeling of contentment when in my home.
I really try not to sweat the small stuff. Life is more vivid and more in focus since my cancer diagnosis.
I know there will be downturns in the years ahead, that is the nature of growing old; but I am grateful to be growing old, and I know there will be more good fortune than bad. I intend to make the best of my time on this road, do what I must do to go over whatever bump is put in front of me, and continue on that road.