On January 30th of this year, I was diagnosed with Stage 1a ovarian cancer. Until now I haven’t shared this publicly…I haven’t been sure if I wanted to say anything, or how exactly I wanted to say it. But 3 months out, it’s starting to feel right to tell my story.
Over Christmas and into the new year, my family was struggling with another medical nightmare – my mom was also diagnosed with ovarian cancer, just 4 weeks before me. We were all reeling in the horrific emotions that inevitably come with a cancer diagnosis, but doing our best to stay positive for her.
When I noticed a strange pressure in my abdomen, I wondered if I might be going crazy, imagining things because of what my mom was going through. Despite my doubts, I decided to see my doctor anyway, and she discovered via ultrasound that I had a large pelvic mass. This was feeling eerily familiar, as my mom initially went to her doctor with a similar symptom. I was sent for a CT scan, and less than 72 hours later I headed to Denver to see a gynecologic oncologist. She wasn’t worried though; there were several things the mass could be without it being cancer. Plus, all my blood tests indicated it was something else.
However, the following Monday I woke up from surgery with the surprise diagnosis that it was cancer. It took the labs two days to finish the staging, and I was incredibly lucky to be diagnosed at Stage 1a, the earliest you can technically even have ovarian cancer.
Me and Angus, an emotional support dog that came to visit me in the hospital.
The cancer hadn’t spread outside my ovary, so I thankfully escaped the need for any chemotherapy or radiation. After three days I was sent home to the mountains to rest and recover.
I know how fortunate I am…only about 10% of women get diagnosed this early, as there is currently no screening for ovarian cancer. I was hugely lucky that surgery alone cured me. But regardless, nothing prepared me for the onslaught of emotions that came with being told I had the “C” word.
Overwhelm Sets In
After I got home and the drugs started to wear off, I realized how scared I felt. I wished someone could explain to me why at age 36, when I was otherwise the picture of health, I got cancer. Not to mention, why this happened just weeks after my mom’s diagnosis. I now have to live with the anxiety that my cancer may someday come back, and that I’m also now at a higher risk for other cancers. How did this happen? Why did it happen? Unfortunately, no one has the answers.
A week after surgery, after sitting on the couch and watching countless movies, I made my aunt drag me out of the house to go for a walk in a nearby neighborhood. I couldn’t handle the hills of my own neighborhood yet, so she took me to a flatter one.
It was super cold out, especially since all I could comfortably wear was yoga pants. I had to be extremely careful not to slip on the icy pavement. I could only walk about 15 minutes, but the Colorado bluebird sky and mountain air made me feel a tiny bit more like myself. The mountains looked so beautiful, even though I knew it’d be a while before I could play in them again.
Magic on a Hiking Trail
Another 2 weeks went by, and I was gradually able to do a little more. Denver warmed up into the 60s, and we took day trips to the Front Range so Brian could bike and I could walk.
The first time I set foot on a hiking path, it felt magical. Although it was a very easy trail, something about being on dirt surrounded by tall grasses just felt amazing. The winter sun was low in the sky, casting long shadows to the East and making everything glow a deep golden color. I was so happy I actually cried a little bit, and I was able to walk a whole 45 minutes. Being on that trail let me forget my fear for a little while and appreciate nothing but the present moment.
At four weeks post-surgery, my doctor said I could try nordic skiing. Although my first love is downhill skiing, I’ve learned to love cross country almost as much as downhill.
It was a perfect cloudless day in Breckenridge and I soaked up every moment on skis. I didn’t go as fast or as far as I normally would, but I didn’t care…I was thankful to be outside and to be well enough to do something that helped me emotionally. Sunshine, fresh air, and a little physical activity really do go a long way!
The Moment My Fear Started to Melt Away
Before my diagnosis, Brian won the lottery for a permit to do the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. We weren’t sure if I would be able to go since it’s a 4-day, 3-night trip into the backcountry, and we had planned to bike the full 100 miles. However, we’d opted to support ourselves with Brian’s Xterra, so I was happy to do the driving, even if I wasn’t up for biking.
We headed into the desert on a Wednesday with 4 other friends, the truck packed to the max. The weather was in the 70s and we didn’t have a drop of rain.
After lunch on the first day, I decided to hop on Brian’s bike and let him drive for a little bit. Words cannot describe how being on a bike made me feel, but intense gratitude was a major part of the emotion that swept over me that afternoon.
The trip was filled with breathtaking scenery and endless starry night skies. We enjoyed gourmet meals, drinks, and laughter around the campfire each night. I managed to bike a little more each day, and by Sunday I had ridden 60 miles of the 100 mile trail, thanks to friends who were willing to take turns driving.
Something came together for me out in the desert. While I can’t make sense of my cancer, something clicked.
Removed from cell service and engrossed in exceptional natural beauty, I spent a lot of time reflecting. 92-94% of patients with my diagnosis live five years or more. As far as cancer survival rates go, that’s pretty damn good. But I can’t help but think about that 6-8% that don’t survive. I’m not particularly worried that I’m in that minority of non-survivors. But it has made me think… a lot.
At the Risk of Sounding Like a Cliche…
Here comes the part where I start to feel like a cliche, a cute social media meme. But I’ll take that risk and say what I feel anyway.
Life is short. Even if you live to be 90, that’s a pretty short time in the grand scheme of things. You better make the most of it, because you never know when things could take a turn for the worse and your life could change forever. Life is impermanent, and nothing is guaranteed.
One night on the trail, after an epic day of biking through red rock canyons and laughing with friends, I escaped to relax in our camping hammock and write in my journal. I came to a realization in that moment. I think I’ve done a fairly good job of living a fulfilling, fun-filled life. But now I have no excuse to say no to adventures, to say I have to stay home and work. For all I know, I could be dead in five years, I could be dead tomorrow. Maybe I’ll live another fifty years, but I can’t take a single day for granted.
So I’m letting the fear of cancer melt away as much as I can. I’m saying goodbye to worrying about making other people happy, to living life like society thinks I should. I’m saying yes to invitations from friends and to spending time with family. I’m saying yes to plans for road trips and adventures outside. And perhaps most importantly, I’m saying yes to taking care of myself; my mind, my soul, and my body.
Since those four days on the White Rim, I haven’t held back a single bit. I’ve spent two weeks with my mom and the rest of my family in Maryland, been to the desert two more times, reconnected with an old friend on a road trip in Florida, skied a couple of powder days in Colorado, and I even went to the Bahamas for a few days. I’ve hiked, mountain biked, road biked, nordic skied, downhill skied, paddle boarded, and kayaked.
In between all the time spent outside and and with my favorite people, I’ve been fiercely pursuing my entrepreneurial dream. I’m hyper focused and ecstatic to be pushing my creative business to yet another level. I’m so excited to be creating something that allows me to live this extraordinary life.
As bizarre as it might be to say just three months after the “C” word, I can honestly say I don’t remember many times in my life that I was this happy.
Even More Gratitude
I can’t wrap up this post without mentioning that my mom is less than two weeks out from finishing her chemo! She probably doesn’t want me to jinx anything by sharing too much, but I’ll just say that things are looking very good for her! I am so thankful to have her and to have the hope that everything is going to be ok with our family.
I am also thankful for all of the friends that helped us both out with meals, prayers, positive thoughts, and just keeping us company. I’m incredibly thankful to my Aunt Margaret Ann for flying out to be with us for surgery and extending her trip when Brian unexpectedly had to fly home to Cincinnati for a funeral four days later.
Finally I am most thankful for Brian, who stood by me through the tears, the anxiety attacks, the horrendous pain, and the first couple weeks that seemed to drag on forever. He has been my rock. I can’t imagine going through any of this without him, and I can’t wait to have more adventures together.