On Friday, February 13, 2015, I was an active 39 year old mom with an 8 year old son and 10 year old daughter when I was blindsided by a diagnosis of high grade serous ovarian cancer. I had no risk factors or family history of the disease and as such, my OB-GYN describes me as “every Doctor’s worst nightmare.” No one suspected that I had an orange-sized mass that was rapidly growing on my left ovary until it was seen on a transvaginal ultrasound that was ordered because of an unusual menstrual cycle. Since I was an advocate for myself and had phenomenal Doctors who did everything right, I was fortunate to be diagnosed at Stage 2B, which is rare for this aggressive cancer.
I spent 5 weeks recovering from my radical hysterectomy/debulking surgery before starting IV/IP chemotherapy. During that time, I was in a dark hole of despair while also in the throes of surgically induced menopause. I did not want to leave my house and felt that I no longer had anything in common with the other moms in town. How could I listen to them complain about their everyday "problems" when I was worried about being here to see my children grow up? I could never imagine feeling any differently than how I was feeling — which was hopeless — but then I started to connect with other survivors online. One of them put me in touch with a volunteer from SHARE who had been diagnosed at a younger age like me and was now a 12 year survivor. She helped me immensely by showing me that this did not have to be a death sentence; we are still friends now. With my new "Teal Sisters" in my corner and my strong support system of family, friends, and kind and caring Doctors who "gave me permission to be optimistic,” I made it out of the fire.
While walking around NYC with my husband after my last chemo treatment, I felt a sense of pride and decided to get my first tattoo to signify everything I'd been through. I decided on a butterfly with the body as a teal ribbon, the color for ovarian cancer awareness. My BFF had told me in the hospital a few days after my surgery that I was going to be leading the cancer parade someday, but I didn't believe her. Six months later, I participated in my first Kaleidoscope of Hope Ovarian Cancer Walk in Avon, NJ. And there I was, rocking my post-cancer look, wig and all, as the leader of “Michele’s Cartel” (…"our drugs save lives"). We've walked every year since then and this year we are also participating in Cycle for Survival, a movement to beat rare cancers. Our team has raised over $10,000 (and counting!) which will go directly to finding new treatments and hopefully a cure someday.
I have found that being around other cancer survivors and giving back has been the most important part of my survivorship. I am a Patient to Patient volunteer, visiting patients and providing hope while they receive chemo at the hospital where I was treated. I also sit on the Patient and Family Advisory Council for Quality. I'm a SHARE helpline volunteer, talking to newly diagnosed patients who are anxious about their futures, just like I was. One of my favorite quotes is, "I love when people that have been through hell walk out of the flames carrying buckets of water for those still consumed by the fire". This has become one of my life's missions. I attend the national Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance conference and it's always the highlight of my summer as it's a yearly reunion of sorts with my beloved "Teal Sisters.” I've advocated for funding on Capitol Hill and I'm part of the Survivors Teaching Students program, where we go into medical schools to tell our diagnosis story in the hopes that future Doctors will become more aware of the symptoms of ovarian cancer. I am also part of SHARE's Pink and Teal program, where we educate the public at different corporations. I never could have imagined turning my cancer diagnosis into something positive, but here I am doing just that, a phenomenon known as "post-traumatic growth."
Cancer changes your life forever. You learn what's important and you learn to have hope. You learn to prioritize and you learn not to waste your time. You learn to be patient and you make sure to tell people you love them. You learn that you are loved and you see the good in people. You are grateful to wake up every day and you learn to be kinder. I am fortunate to have had no evidence of disease since my surgery, but I will be monitored closely for the rest of my life to ensure that I will be around to see my children grow up. As a cancer survivor, you see life through a special lens and even though it may sound crazy, I am grateful for these special glasses. I try to always keep in mind another favorite quote of mine, "Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.”
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