Thriving Through Cancer: 3 Ways Women Can Take Control of Their Story

July 7, 2016

My experience thriving through ovarian cancer didn’t start with a clear diagnosis. It felt like I was a pinball shooting around in an arcade game — bouncing from doctor to doctor seeking answers. It was exhausting, and it almost cost me my life.

When I first started experiencing abdominal pain, I made an appointment with my general practitioner. I hadn’t been sleeping well and was regularly experiencing painful bloating. After running some tests, she sent me to a gastrointestinal doctor, who diagnosed me with IBS and gave me a prescription. She also sent me to my OB/GYN, who scheduled me for a transvaginal ultrasound but told me that I was suffering from normal ovarian cysts that would go away on their own in a few months.

 At that point, none of my doctors had even considered cancer as a possibility. They neglected to run any blood work; my young age of 35 and healthy lifestyle blinded them from investigating the true source of my pain. Instead, my OB/GYN dubbed “totally normal” ruptured ovarian cysts the cause and prescribed me Vicodin.

 I was in horrific pain, but I was told that my body would eventually reabsorb the ruptured cysts and I’d be fine. I headed home, defeated, with a list of prescriptions I didn’t need to take.

Taking Control of My Pain

Six months after my first doctor’s appointment, my belly was bloated to the point of looking pregnant. I had no idea what ovarian cancer was, but I knew something was seriously wrong. As a last resort, I called a family friend who was a gastrointestinal surgeon. He was completely baffled that, during all this time, no one had done a CT scan and immediately scheduled one for me to get to the bottom of my pain.

The CT scan identified my “totally normal” ovarian cysts as peritoneal carcinomatosis, a rare cancer that can spread throughout the entire abdomen. Five days later, I was prepped for a radical hysterectomy and wheeled into the operating room.

When I awoke after seven hours in surgery, I found out that the doctors hadn’t just removed my ovaries; they had removed my uterus, my cervix, my fallopian tubes, my spleen, a part of my stomach, a part of my transverse colon, and both of my lower and peritoneal omentum. The ruptured cyst had essentially been soaking my organs in cancerous fluid the entire time, turning my whole abdomen into a cancerous breeding ground. I was lucky to still be alive.

Save First Base? It’s Time to Save Women

Thanks to the pink ribbons and “Save First Base” T-shirts, the five-year relative survival rate for stage 3 breast cancer is up to 72 percent. While I’m overjoyed that so many women are making efforts to protect their mammary glands, it’s time we turned that same determination to another killer of women: ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer is a unique monster. The survival rate for all types of ovarian cancer is 45 percent; however, when ovarian cancer is treated by a general surgeon or OB/GYN surgeon rather than a gynecologic oncologist, the risks of complications drop the survival rate significantly. Many general surgeons open up women with pelvic masses only to discover how unqualified they are to deal with such a dangerous cancerous mass far too late.

I was fortunate to have multiple options for a gynecologic oncologist; in rural areas, it’s nearly impossible to find such a specific practitioner. It’s not just exceedingly rare to be diagnosed with gynecological cancers in time — it’s nearly impossible to receive proper care. It’s time for women to have the proper resources for their health.

Be the Heroine of Your Own Story

In many ways, it was sheer luck that I made it through the whirlwind of diagnoses and treatments, but for the most part, thriving through cancer was the result of my hard work and commitment to trusting my body. Knowing what I do now, I have some advice for women taking control of their own story:

1. Ask questions like your life depends on it — because it does. I was lucky to be in the hands of qualified, thoughtful doctors. Unfortunately, that’s not the standard of care in our country. Rushed doctors won’t think to divulge important information if women are too shy to ask.

Women must learn about their health beforehand to have honest discussions with their doctors. Before any treatment begins, compose a list of questions and insist on getting the answers. I recommend questions like “Am I going to go into surgical menopause overnight?” or “What are the side effects of menopause going to be?” Get to the bottom of what’s going on in your body — you have every right to know.

At Atlanta Motor Speedway in Atlanta, Georgia on February 28, 2016. CIA Stock Photo

2. Thrive, don’t just survive, through treatment. Staying calm during treatment is hard, and actually enjoying life seems even harder. But I’m telling you that your body has enough to deal with without your anxiety escalating the situation.

Lean on your family and friends to help you manage stress and fear — both emotions can wreak havoc on your already compromised immune system. Additionally, exercise can be crucial in carrying you through to recovery. It’s easy to want to lie back and wait to feel better, but movement is essential for fighting the toxins swimming through your bloodstream.

During my treatment, I drank gallons of water and regularly walked, biked, swam, or stretched — I tried anything I could to flush the toxins out of my system. Yoga turned out to be my favorite exercise; it cleared my body and mind, giving me a chance to heal on a deeper level.

3. Educate and empower your sisters. Unfortunately, I won’t be the only one to battle gynecological cancer. There are women all over the world who need help identifying their symptoms and seeking proper treatment. While I’ve started a movement at SherryStrong.org to inform people about gynecological cancer, it’s important that every woman pushes and encourages her female sisters to take charge of their health.

NASCAR, which graciously agreed to clad all of its cars in teal ribbons for the month of September, has been a huge help in getting the word out about the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer. But I still need your help to empower women to take the lead with their health.

An ovarian cancer diagnosis doesn’t have to be an automatic death sentence; my story is proof of that. But it’s vital to do your research and be your own advocate. Ask questions, push for your health, and pass along the warning signs of ovarian cancer. It’s never too late to fight for your life.

By: Sherry Pollux