“You have cancer.”
I don’t think I’ll ever forget hearing those words. It was October 5, 2017. There was horrible traffic that day. I was late and I didn’t have a chance to eat breakfast. I told myself that once I got this final doctor appointment out of the way, I’d celebrate with a donut from the bakery downstairs. Yes, I was going to eat my feelings, don’t judge me. Turns out it was a very long road to get that donut.
I’ll start from the beginning and tell you a little about myself. I’m 34. I have no family history of cancer. I’m healthy. I exercise regularly, eat right, don’t smoke, go to the doctor, and I always, always wear sunscreen. And yes, I just found out I have cancer.
My journey started with a gut feeling. In recent years, I’d had a number of friends who had confided in me about their trouble conceiving and, as an unmarried woman in my early 30s who desperately wants children one day, I decided to put on my big girl pants and look into freezing my eggs. While some were supportive, I received numerous responses like “Why?” or “You’re too young for that,” or even “Isn’t that really expensive?” I didn’t really have an answer to any of them, I just trusted my gut and scheduled the appointment.
At my initial appointment, the doctors gave me an ultrasound which revealed a large ovarian cyst on my right ovary. The doctors assured me it was nothing, “99% chance it’s benign,” but nonetheless, they recommended I have surgery to remove it so it wouldn’t rupture and cause more severe internal damage. I reluctantly agreed.
Surgery number one was scheduled in September. The plan was to have the cyst removed and then I could proceed with egg freezing; however, after surgery, I walked into my follow-up appointment for the biopsy results and got the news everyone dreads hearing.
October 5, 2017: I was diagnosed with immature teratoma (stage 1) ovarian cancer. As the doctors explained to me, the initial cyst was benign; however, during surgery, they found another tumor hiding behind the one they were operating on that none of the other scans had shown, and that was the cancerous tumor.
After that moment, nothing felt the same. While physically I felt fine, emotionally I was numb. Like that moment you stub your toe before you actually feel the pain. I felt like I was living in limbo just waiting for the freak out to set in.
The next few weeks were a blur of doctor appointments, scans, second and even third opinions, and lots and lots of what I would call “ugly tears.” After reviewing all options, the treatment plan was outlined to have surgery to remove my right ovary and, as long as the cancer hadn’t spread, I wouldn’t have to proceed with chemotherapy. But, there was a chance that I would, which was terrifying to me.
Would I lose all my hair? Would I have to quit my job? Would I feel sick all the time? These questions were on a constant internal rotation in my mind. Up until this point, I hadn’t felt physically different at all, and I felt safe leaving my house knowing no one knew what I was going through. The possibility of chemo to me felt like stripping off all my armor and having to go into battle unarmed.
My surgery was scheduled mid-November, which in medical terms is very quick, but in the real world it felt like time stood still. Each day I went to work to keep my mind occupied with anything other than cancer, and I spent my nights consuming as much knowledge as I possibly could. I read every book recommended to me. I attended support groups. I reached out to others who had similar experiences for support. Basically, I tried any and everything recommended to me. Nothing made me feel normal.
Going into surgery I felt scared and anxious. I believed in my heart that I would be okay, but I saw the fear on everyone’s faces when I shared my story. I’m a firm believer in the “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” mantra and I’ve been through a lot in my life. This was just going to be one of those pivotal moments I share with my kids one day when I tell them to brave and face life’s challenges head-on.
Luckily, on Thanksgiving that year after surgery number two, I was given the news that I was cancer-free. That meant I’d have to be closely monitored for the next year but essentially, I had a clean bill of health and yes, I could have that donut.
Having cancer changes you. For me, it was the first time that I felt my own mortality. As a healthy woman in my early 30s, I never imagined a possibility where my life might be cut short. Now, each and every morning I wake up, I’m grateful for this life and all the ups and downs it brings.
That’s not to say it was easy. Cancer was without a doubt the hardest thing I’ve had to go through in my life to date. In addition to being sick, I endured a heartbreaking breakup. While I know in my heart the relationship wasn’t right, saying goodbye to someone is never easy, and standing on your own two feet when you’re weak as hell is hard to do.
But some amazing things have happened since then. Thanks to the wonderful team at Northwestern and the Livestrong program that sponsored my treatment, I was able to freeze my eggs. It took two full cycles, lots of self-imposed injections daily and more blood draws than I’ve had in my life to date, but in the end, they were able to retrieve 10 oocytes. If this year has taught me anything, it’s that life can throw some curveballs, and this feels like a small safety net for whatever happens next in life.
To be transparent, I’m not sure what the future holds for me. I still have one working ovary (“Lefty” as my friends lovingly have named it) and hopefully, I’ll be able to have children one day. But it might be extremely hard for me, and it also might never happen. I’ve learned that I’m ok with that and, after all this, one of the lessons I’ve learned is that what’s meant to be will be.
I’ve also learned that I’m stronger than I think. I learned that although I may be a small person, I have a very big voice and I can use it to make an impact moving forward. I learned that scars (both physical and emotional) heal in time. I learned that the people who love you will show up for you and those who don’t aren’t worth your tears. I learned that daytime TV is really, really boring. I learned that good health is the greatest gift of all (but good wine comes a close second). But most of all, I learned that life is tough but more importantly, so am I.