Patient Blogs | Ovarian Cancer
How a Simple Hand Injury Led to My Ovarian Cancer Diagnosis
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I had just turned 40 years old. At the time, my kids were aged 4, 10, and 12, so life was very busy (still is). I was playing soccer on a co-ed indoor team and running/walking my rescued golden retriever every day. I’d just published my first two historical romance novels and was awaiting the release of my third. Life was good.

I had seen the gynecologist (GYN) 5 months earlier for strange spotting and was told it was premenopausal breakthrough bleeding. My ovaries and uterus felt fine to my gynecologist.

I first noticed that my skinny jeans, the ones I could wear comfortably 3 days into my period when I debloated, didn’t zip easily. Hmm. Was my metabolism slowing down? It had to be now that I was hitting 40, so I upped the running and my reps of sit-ups. Then I got a pain in my right side. I thought I’d pulled something with the sit-ups. This pinchy pain continued, especially when I sat down. I also felt pressure in my abdomen, like I was possibly getting a bladder infection. But it wasn’t awful, and I was too busy to slow down for a doctor’s appointment.

In the soccer playoffs, a large man kicked the ball toward me. Bam! It hit my hand, and I thought for sure it was broken, so I finally had to make that doctor’s appointment. I went to see my nurse practitioner the next day. While she was checking out my wrist, I mentioned the bloating and pain in my side. Little did I know at the time, that mention saved my life.

She did a quick feel of my abdomen. Her brows wrinkled. “I need to do a pelvic exam.”

“For a broken hand,” I teased.

“Something’s not right.”

“I’m seeing my GYN next month for my annual. It can wait.”

“No, it can’t.” She wouldn’t let me leave. Thank goodness.

During her exam, she could not feel my right ovary. Something seemed to be blocking it. We tossed around ideas like an ectopic pregnancy and an ovarian cyst. She scheduled a transvaginal ultrasound for me the next morning.

A “Complex” Mass

My husband went with me to the ultrasound. The most uncomfortable part of the transvaginal ultrasound was that I needed a full bladder for the best views. I got up on the table and told the technician I hoped I wouldn’t pee everywhere. She assured me it had happened before, so it wasn’t a big deal. She was very nice and chatty. Then, well, she stopped talking. When it was over and I was allowed to empty my bladder, she had me sit in the room. She brought me a warm blanket to wrap around myself and offered me water several times. Something was definitely wrong.

She finally let me back out in the waiting room, and 30 minutes later the radiologist came to tell me and my husband that they had been trying to get ahold of my GYN, but the phone was always busy. “You have a large mass, and it is complex. You need to go to your GYN as soon as possible. I have your films.”

I sort of lost track of the minutes following those words as my husband helped me into his truck. He drove me directly to the GYN, and we walked into a room of pregnant women waiting to be seen. I went to the receptionist. “I have a large mass, and I need help. They told me to come here with my films.”

Within 30 minutes I was meeting with a doctor in his office, my husband holding my hand. “It is a complex mass with blood vessels supplying it, which means I should not be the one to remove it. I want you to see a GYN oncology surgeon.” I did not know this at the time, but having a GYN oncology surgeon remove my tumor was the No. 1 way to save my life because they treat the mass like cancer before even knowing it is cancer.

I looked out the window where leaves were budding on a tree. An oncologist? Cancer? I looked at the doctor. “But it grew so fast. There was nothing there 5 months ago. It must be just a cyst to grow so fast.”

“It could be, but let’s not take any chances.”

They drew my blood for a CA-125 test to look for OC markers. I wouldn’t get the result for a couple of days. Above 35 was considered abnormal.

There happened to be an opening for a GYN oncology appointment the next morning, and I met the woman who I would be working with for the next decade and beyond. She looked at the scans and agreed the mass must come out soon, but she could not tell just from the pictures if it was cancer. My CA-125 came back as 42, so above normal but not outrageously high.

Words That Changed My Life Forever

Surgery day was no fun, mainly because I couldn’t eat. I get very nauseated when I don’t eat. I had a mix of worry, exhaustion, and nausea that put me in a bad mood. The best part of the whole day was when they asked me to count backwards from 10 while being put under. I love the drifting off part.

I woke up slowly with pain all through my middle and the sound of air cuffs around my legs blowing up and hissing periodically (to prevent blood clots). And I wasn’t in Recovery like I was supposed to be since it was planned as an outpatient surgery.

“I’m in a room. This isn’t good,” I mumbled. My husband woke up from the chair beside my bed and came over to take my hand with both of his. And then he told me the thing that would change my life forever.

“It is cancer,” he said. “Ovarian cancer.”

I’m only 40. My kids. I’m going to die.

In my groggy state, I said “Make sure they give my organs to other people to save them. I’m a donor.”

He squeezed my hand. “Honey, you have cancer. No one wants your organs.” I would have laughed if I wasn’t in so much pain. He kissed my forehead. “So you’re going to keep your organs because you’re not going anywhere.” And that started a new journey, a journey of survival. My husband fighting right alongside me. My kids, my mom and dad, my friends -- they all plunged into the cancer war.

Waging War

I was diagnosed with stage IIC ovarian cancer and stage IA uterine cancer, which was easy to fix with the complete hysterectomy I got. The ovarian cancer, however, was a beast. It had also taken over my other ovary and had spread to four places on the inside wall of my abdomen. My GYN oncology surgeon was able to do optimal debulking when she originally went in. After 3 weeks of recovery from surgery, I started six rounds of chemo and enrolled in a clinical trial. Because of the clinical trial, I received infusions for 15 long months.

My body was not a fan of chemo even though it was saving it. I had many side effects, but the nurses and my wonderful doc dealt with each one, helping me stay afloat. Dealing with fear, though, was on me and my husband. Having kids made it even harder. I promised my kids that I would do everything I could not to leave them.

“Who will you play with in heaven if I’m not with you?” my 4-year-old asked.

“Just promise me you won’t die,” my 10-year-old begged me.

“I’m making sea glass jewelry to raise money to find you a cure,” my 12-year-old said and dove right in.

It has been 10 years since that diagnosis, and my CA-125 now hovers around 8. I am so very fortunate that the cancer is gone. I hope and pray it never comes back. I hate it with every ounce of my being. Making one’s own body turn against itself feels like the biggest betrayal. But there were blessings along the way and still more to come. For now, though, I try to be thankful for every single day I have.

Have you been diagnosed with ovarian cancer? The initial diagnosis is one of the hardest parts of the whole journey. If you feel like you’re falling apart, you are not alone. Sit and let the chair hold you secure and take one day, one hour, one breath at a time, and you will keep moving forward.

 

Photo Credit: FreshSplash / E+ via Getty Images

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Heather McCollum

Heather McCollum

Diagnosed since 2011

Heather McCollum is a 10-year survivor of ovarian cancer living near Raleigh, NC. When she isn't helping to educate women about this disease, she's busy raising her three kids, taking care of her rescued animals, and writing Scottish historical romance novels. She loves dragonflies, hot chai tea lattes, and supporting other cancer warriors as they maneuver through their own journeys.

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