My journey with ovarian cancer started more than 40 years ago when I was a freshman in college. Even though my actual surgery was long ago, all of the events are still so vivid in my mind.
During one spring break in college, I experienced a pain in my side that didn’t seem to go away. When I returned to campus after the break, I went to see the college physician about the pain, and he did a blood test to first check if I had appendicitis. Of course, I didn’t.
Over the next four years, the pain would come and go. I had what I called “gall bladder attacks,” which seemed to occur after I went skiing or did any other physical activity. I would get so sick that I stayed in bed for hours unable to move. My stomach would swell up and feel bloated, and I would be extremely nauseous.
During those four years, I went to different doctors trying to find out what was wrong. Each doctor conducted upper GI tests, which always came back negative. All the doctors seemed to believe I was a hypochondriac, but I always knew something was seriously wrong. Through all this, I never had any problems with my periods.
By the time I was a senior in college, I was sick much more of the time. I would often faint from the pain. I finally went to the hospital emergency room when I got violently sick after taking a nasty fall while downhill skiing. The emergency room physician realized I was really sick, and for the first time, my doctor realized something was wrong with me. I stayed in the hospital for a week of tests, and they decided I should have my gall bladder removed.
The surgeon scheduled to do the surgery, however, thought I should wait. I will always be grateful to him. He was very kind and was truly interested in me, both as a person and as a patient. I believe it’s because he had four daughters himself.
Through a pelvic exam, my doctor felt a mass on my right ovary. When I finally did have surgery, I had what was described as a multi-lateral malignant tumor on my right ovary, with small tumors and cists on my left ovary. As a result, I had a complete hysterectomy. I had just turned 22 years old.
Since my treatment, there have been great medical improvements, and doctors are being trained to listen more to their patients. I truly believe that had this occurred to me today, then my ovarian cancer would have been diagnosed much earlier.
What I learned through this experience is that you need to take complete responsibility for your own health care. Just because a physician tells you what you want to hear doesn’t mean you should accept the diagnosis if you still feel something is wrong. Women know their bodies and must trust themselves when they think something is wrong.
As a result of this experience, my life has taken a drastically different turn. Because of my hysterectomy, I wasn’t able to have my own children and never married. I have traveled the world and have done a lot of volunteer work with children and adults who have had bone marrow transplants at the University of Minnesota. In the 1980s I started volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House. I felt this strong need as a cancer survivor to offer my time and energy to other cancer patients.
Then, in 1989, I became involved with a program through the University called Care Partners. It was as though God had given me this gift to work with these families. I have helped over 25 families from throughout the United States, as well as Canada, Malaysia, Greece, Bolivia, and Liberia.
Being a cancer survivor, I feel that I can communicate more easily with these families and that they trust and feel more comfortable with me. Often in volunteer situations, it is the volunteer who feels so blessed, and I have always felt this to be the case.
You always tell yourself something happens for a reason, but for the longest time, I couldn’t find a reason for being diagnosed with ovarian cancer at such a young age. Now later in life, I think the reason is perhaps that I am able to help out all these other people whose lives have been devastated with this thing called cancer.
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