Sunday, October 30, 2011

My Mother's Ovarian Cancer and Me

"And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see: or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read. " -- Alice Walker

My mother gave me a love for gardening and reading. She passed on to me the shape of her hands, her sense of humor and her strong survival instincts. I last saw my mother alive on an autumn day in 1988. Had she not opened her eyes and said, "There's my baby," I might have thought I had walked into the wrong room in the cancer ward. Only her voice was familiar to me. The disease had ravaged the rest of her and transformed her into someone I no longer recognized. When she died a few weeks later, all I knew about ovarian cancer was that it had taken, far too soon, the life of my spunky, fun-loving, 76 year-old mother and left a huge hole in my life.

After Mom's death, I began my quest to learn all I could about ovarian cancer. But for a decade I discovered very little. Only that this particular type of cancer  has a high mortality rate because it is so difficult to detect. (My mother's cancer was found in stage four; it had already metastasized to other organs.) The symptoms of ovarian cancer are vague, or non-existent. This was confirmed to me over and over again as I met and talked with women who had lost moms, sisters and friends to ovarian cancer. By the time their loved one suspected something was wrong, the cancer had already spread. 

Then something amazing happened. I met my first ovarian cancer survivor in 2002. With everything I knew, what were the chances someone had lived through it? I felt like I had won the lottery. For the next twenty minutes she described her experience. It all started when "things just didn't feel right"; stomach bloating, diarrhea and general discomfort. She knew her body, and what she felt was outside her norm. Her doctor listened to her complaints, but only at her insistence did he order the tests that confirmed she had early stage ovarian cancer. He performed a hysterectomy and she went through a round of chemo. She beat ovarian cancer with faith in God and a fierce determination to manage her own health.

Ovarian cancer research has come a long way in 23 years. We now know that the risk for developing this type of cancer increases when a close relative has had the disease. And that there is a link between ovarian and breast cancer. Because of my family history -- a mother who died of ovarian cancer and a first cousin who developed breast cancer -- I'm considered high risk. For this reason, about six years ago my gynecologist at the time recommended procedures to aid in early detection, should I develop ovarian cancer. Namely, vaginal ultrasounds and CA-125 blood tests. I took her recommendation.

Fast forward to the past nine months. New city, new doctor. I've had three abnormal tumor markers, elevated CA-125 since the first of the year. I had a follow-up vaginal ultrasound which showed no abnormality in my ovaries. At that point I had a choice to make. I could repeat the test in another three months and see if there are any changes, or I could get a second opinion now. I chose the later. 

I met last Wednesday with a gynecologist who has extensive experience with ovarian cancer. He looked over my test results, reviewed my family history and examined me. Then we sat down and had a long talk. I won't divulge the details of our conversation. I'm not a medical doctor and every situation is different. What I will tell you is that I opted to have an oophorectomy, which is just a fancy word for laparoscopic removal of ovaries. I had the surgery Friday morning, along with removal of my fallopian tubes and  an endometrial biopsy. The surgery went well and I'm home recovering. On Wednesday this week I'll get the pathology results. We are praying for and expecting good news.

So why did I write this post? Well, for one thing, to honor my mother. It's because of what she suffered that I decided to do everything necessary to protect my own health. And you know, I think she'd really be proud of me for making the decision I did. 

I also wrote this for my granddaughter. I want her to know how much I love her and her brother. They're two of the reasons I had the surgery. I want to be around to see them both grow up, and maybe marry and have children of their own. 

Finally, I wrote this for anyone who is living in fear of cancer or any other fatal disease. Please, take an active role in managing your health. Take care of yourself: eat right, exercise, don't smoke, limit alcohol, get plenty of rest. Go for regular check-ups. Talk openly and honestly with your doctor about your health concerns. If he or she makes you feel uncomfortable, find another healthcare provider. There are plenty of them out there. If you're at risk for a particular disease, find out everything you can about it. There are a number of reputable medical sites on the internet; John Hopkins, The Mayo Clinic, The Cancer Institute to name a few. As they say, Knowledge is Power.

May I offer one more piece of advice and the most important? Pray. Ask God to help you find the answers you need and give you the peace you long for. He is faithful. He will do it.

"In the day of my trouble I shall call upon You, For You will answer me." Psalm 86:7



  1. Such a beautiful article, Nancy. I grieve for all the women in our lives who "found out" too late. Many of the ones I knew ignored symptoms, so it is wonderful for you to encourage women to check things out right away. God has blessed us now-a-days with wonderful diagnostic tools. Let's take advantage of our technology!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Dena. Too many women neglect to see a doctor out of fear of what will be discovered. However, the prognosis is so good if cancer is detected early, that we must push through the fear and listen to that still, small voice that tells us to see a doctor.


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