Love and Luck
My life has been overflowing with Love and Luck, and never more so than since my surprise diagnosis of advanced ovarian cancer on March 12, 2001, at age 45 years, five months and 19 days.
Although my 68-year-old mother had died of advanced-stage ovarian cancer exactly five months earlier, on Oct. 12, 2000, there was no other history of ovarian cancer in my family. We are not carriers of the infamous mutated BRCA genes (go ahead, Google Angelina Jolie!), which, when in good working order, protect against ovarian and breast cancer. When those genes are damaged, they no longer offer protection, and the chance of a woman being diagnosed with ovarian or breast cancer is as high as 80 percent. In my case, with no BRCA mutation, we simply don’t yet know what we don’t know.
Despite decades of research for an effective and inexpensive screening test for all women as part of an annual checkup, there is no screening test for ovarian cancer. No simple blood test. No scan. No X-ray. No test like a Pap smear, which is so effective for diagnosing early-stage cervical cancer.
That someone like me – who was carefully monitored during my mom’s nine-month illness – could be diagnosed late stage should be very disturbing to anyone who is a woman, or who knows a woman. And, that would be everyone, right?
Luck has been my buddy for more than 15 years of my healthy survivorship. I have no clue why I obliterated the odds of surviving five years, much less 15. A vegetarian for five years before my diagnosis, I craved bacon during chemo, caved to the temptation, and have never looked back. I have come to believe bacon goes with everything.
I love the “love” in my beautiful Love and Luck duo, because I have been blessed beyond measure with a husband who has had my back at every turn for way longer than 15 years, and especially since that fateful diagnosis day. Too many people suffer the emotional loss of a spouse or partner who simply “can’t handle” illness and survivorship. I say, if they think they can’t handle it, they should step into the shoes of those going through it and imagine how hard it is. Lucky me, to have him.
My survivor sisters, well, where would I be in my survivorship journey without them? I joined an online support group when Mom was diagnosed, to get tips and tricks from survivors to help her. When I returned to the group on my own behalf, I was welcomed like a long-lost daughter. Survivors meet every year at the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance conference, and a core group of us have become close friends, even choosing to vacation together annually for a long girlfriend weekend. We have a blast when we reunite. We are stronger together.
We urge one another to stay active in ovarian cancer education and advocacy, from sharing our diagnosis stories with third-year medical students (Survivors Teaching Students: Saving Women’s Lives®) to being the survivor voice on government research and funding projects. We long-termers must stay involved, to give hope to women and to keep the pressure on for early detection and a cure.
I am lucky I now am old enough to feel the “joys” of an aging back, wrinkle my nose in disgust at age spots, and wonder when those fine lines around my eyes appeared.
I would love to know my secret survival sauce, because I would bottle it and give it away. I would send it to my two sweet and courageous friends who now are in hospice care at ages impossible to imagine. And, I would leap back in time and gift it to Mom and the countless friends whose love was so important to me before they were lost to ovarian cancer.
Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer – Sort Of
A woman should have a thorough gynecologic exam by a gynecologic oncologist if she experiences one or more of the symptoms listed for more than two weeks and are unusual for her. Please note, many women are diagnosed without having any symptoms. But, without a screening test, this is the best we have. Be vigilant!
- Feeling full quickly after eating
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency)
A Snapshot of Ovarian Cancer (Source: National Cancer Institute)
- Ovarian cancer accounts for approximately 3 percent of all cancers in women.
- Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women in the United States.
- Approximately 22,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the U.S., and approximately 14,000 will die of the disease.
- 75 percent of ovarian cancer is diagnosed at the advanced stages of III or IV, when it is harder to cure.
(PHOTO AT THE TOP): The author and ovarian cancer survivor, Annamarie DeCarlo (second from left) with three other survivors at the 2016 National Ovarian Cancer Coalition conference in Baltimore, Md.