Age at diagnosis: 20 years old
Stage at diagnosis: Stage I
Story posted: 2011
Few people at the age of 20 think about cancer, and far fewer ponder the possibility of it happening to them. It is an age at which the vast majority of us believe that we are invincible – an age at which, if we ever even consider it at all, we only contemplate the future in terms of the endless opportunities that lie ahead.
To say that I was shocked does not even begin to convey the wide array of emotions that came over me when I was diagnosed with stage I ovarian cancer several weeks before entering my junior year of college.
Looking back on it now, I’m not entirely certain if I experienced very many symptoms prior to being diagnosed; if I did, I undoubtedly disregarded them, as many of the ones that are typically cited tend to be those which most young women are not accustomed to viewing as indicative of anything more serious than stress or an upcoming period. As a result, it was not until after at least a month or so of having a slightly hardened and distended stomach that I made an appointment with a gynecologist.
The following week, an ultrasound revealed some sort of a cyst or tumor, which according to my physician would almost certainly be benign given my age. Nonetheless, he sent me to the hospital directly, and thus began what was unfortunately the first of many stays at a hospital. Following nearly two days of various tests and questions, my physician decided to proceed with surgery, which resulted in the removal of a large tumor on my right ovary, as well as a smaller one on my left.
As I was happily seeing my tumors off to the pathology lab, and throughout the remainder of my recovery at the hospital, the unlikelihood of any malignancy was continually emphasized by my physician. Aside from feeling utterly nauseated from the pain medication, I was overcome with an immeasurable sense of relief that everything was finally all “over.”
Two weeks later, when I confidently returned for a follow-up examination, I was told that everything was not, in fact, over. Quite the opposite, it was all just beginning. One of my tumors was indeed malignant; it was a grade 3 (a more aggressively developing) immature teratoma, an uncommon kind of ovarian germ cell tumor, which in truth my own physician could tell me very little about other than that it would require several months of chemotherapy.
Throughout the next two weeks, I was referred to an oncologist and an oncologic surgeon, underwent extensive testing, including AFP tumor marker tests as well as other blood work, X-rays, CT scans, and pulmonary function tests, had a second surgery involving the removal of my right ovary, fallopian tube, appendix, and pelvic lymph nodes, took the semester off from school, quit my part-time job, moved back into my parents’ house (a difficult thing for any young person reveling in the newfound independence that accompanies one’s early 20s) – and then began chemotherapy.
What followed in the next several months is often difficult for me to recount in great detail, partly because of my generally drugged and exhausted state at the time, but perhaps more so because of how incredibly overwhelming it all was, together with the often imperfect manner in which those emotions, even six years later, seem to translate into words. I remember being very sick. I remember being angry, frustrated, and resentful. And most of all, I remember being very, very tired of it all.
Though I would not trade my experience for any other, chemotherapy was quite possibly the hardest thing that I have ever and will ever have to go through. A woman with the same diagnosis whom I had met over the Internet once told me, while I was in the midst of treatment, that I would one day call chemo “my best friend,” and she could not have put it better, but I was very close to hating it then.
Initially I was most alarmed at the prospect of losing my hair; in hindsight, this became one of the easiest side-effects to deal with, albeit the one that remained the longest. The nausea, the exhaustion, the insomnia, and the flu-like aches and pains, to name a few, were, on the other hand, far more consuming. I am profoundly grateful for the love and support of my family and friends, for I cannot imagine how I could have endured it without them.
Though having cancer is never easy for anyone, for a young adult it comes with a markedly different set of challenges. As one young ovarian cancer survivor explained in describing how she felt out of place in a support group consisting primarily of older members, many of them had “lived out their dreams of marriage, children, and work aspirations.”
At 20, however, one’s life is still characterized considerably by various aspects of self-discovery, be it in the pursuit of career and educational goals, in the development of new relationships, and in so many other ways. To have to put everything on hold, or to possibly have it all end, was an emotional trial that I was up until that point entirely unprepared for.
Many of my friends, to whom I had once found it so easy to relate, could not even begin to comprehend the immense fear, loneliness, and sense of loss that accompanies cancer, the longevity and the enormity of it all. These were the sorts of deeply embedded mental struggles that were difficult to leave behind at the end of the day, even long after treatment was over.
Despite all of this, I was enormously fortunate in that I needed only three cycles of chemotherapy (five consecutive days of Etoposide and Cisplatin every 21 days, one day of Bleomycin each week).
My treatment ended on November 14 of 2000, and while cancer will always be a part of my life, with routine checkups, blood work, and physical complications, I have met so many courageous women who have faced far more and who continue to face it still. Hearing their stories helps me continue to live my own life with greater strength and humility, and I hope that in telling my story I can in some way inspire others to find that same strength and to let them know that they are not alone.
Though everyone’s experience with ovarian cancer is different, there remain so many common themes – feelings of sadness and hope, fear and courage – that resonate among all of us.