My ovarian cancer journey

My name is Annie, and I’m 46 years old. My husband and I have been married for 19 years, and we have three wonderful children together, ages 17, 14, and 11. We live in the East Bay with a 90-pound female American Bulldog who has a 50-pound Pitbull for a brother.

By all accounts, we had been living a quiet, comfortable family life up until the events of the last four years. These events absolutely changed the course of our lives; it tested my strength and my faith.

In 2016, my Mom had been in and out of doctor’s appointments. She had difficulty performing regular activities, and even sleeping became an arduous task due to back pain. She thought a urinary tract infection was causing the abdominal pain and the discomfort when urinating. She was given pain meds for the symptoms; lab tests came back negative. It was only when her abdomen started to extend that she was eventually given a CT scan. That scan, and the biopsies that followed, ended up with a diagnosis of stage 4 ovarian cancer. 

Mom’s tumor was too large to remove so the doctors decided to shrink it first through six cycles of paclitaxel and carboplatin. After the six cycles, she went under the knife for a hysterectomy, followed again by three more cycles of chemo. I accompanied Mom to all her treatments, appointments, and hospital stays. I was her caregiver, her support system, and her prayer warrior. The experience taught me so many things. I learned about ascites and about CA125 levels. Through her, I had been up close and personal with CT scans and infusion clinics. I learned about the proper nutrition for a cancer patient and the realities of chemo and its side effects — all that is visible and invisible to the eye.

Little did I know, this knowledge and experience were in preparation for my own diagnosis.

At the start of 2016, I woke up with a sharp pain in the left side of my abdomen. It was so painful that I had to call the doctor’s office to report it. They asked me a few questions, prescribed an over-the-counter pain relief, and that was that. Since that morning though, I’ve always had that pain, never loud, always just dull, always in the background.

That summer, while my Mom was mid-treatment, I sat down with a gynecologist and told her about my abdominal pain, my intermittent back pains, my now relevant history of ovarian cancer, and my concerns about my own ovaries. I used the knowledge I gained from my Mom’s condition, and I asked for a CA125 test and a pelvic ultrasound. It took some pressure and convincing before they scheduled these tests, I was told these were out of protocol for my age.

The pelvic ultrasound showed my right ovary, but they could not see my left. My CA125 came back north of 1900, when normal level is 35. The results were brushed aside as false positives for any concern. I was told polyps and benign cysts can trigger these results. My medical professionals were not concerned, so I also brushed it aside, trusting the system.

Later that year, I was convinced something was truly wrong when my abdominal pain started to get more pronounced, and I started having multiple periods. I went in and out of doctors’ appointments, consulting with both my PCP and my gynecologist. Between the two of them I had undergone colposcopy, cervical screen, pap, an HPV test, and all came back normal. To address the extra monthly periods, I was advised to take hormone supplements, which I declined. I was told to take fiber supplements, to move my bowels and to take care of my pain.

Another year rolled in, it’s 2017, and my belly began to swell; I knew something was terribly wrong. I demanded a CT scan, which ultimately confirmed the cancer inside me. In February of that year, I was officially diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer. I was livid. I felt so betrayed knowing that I had advocated for my body very early, and yet ended up defeated. I asked myself, and my doctors, too, “How could this happen?” I asked the right questions, I demanded the tests, and still ended up with the disease. In my heart I was scared for others, women who didn’t know what questions to ask, women who didn’t have a voice or didn’t have information. I had all of those, and I still found myself sick and helpless.

My Mom and I were advised to get genetic testing. We did, and we were both confirmed as BRCA1 positive.

A week after my diagnosis, I had a complete hysterectomy. After six weeks in recovery, and while my Mom was in remission, I entered treatment for six cycles of chemotherapy. It was brutal, and I quickly realized that watching my Mom go through it was very different from actually sitting on that chair myself, taking the liquid poison that was meant to kill the even bigger poison inside.

I was grateful to have been given a second lease in life, and when I completed my treatment, my family and I went to see places we’ve never been. It was an adventurous remission until my cancer returned last September. During the recurrence, the only symptom I had was the abdominal pain, and this strong gut instinct inside me that something was off. I pushed my oncologist for a scan that once again proved me right.  Not long after, I was back on the operating table for a laparoscopy and subsequent infusion for six more cycles.

I can’t recall if the initial diagnosis was worse than the recurrence or vice versa, I just know I lost myself again, and had to look really hard in the mirror to find me.

When I finished the second round of treatment, Covid was on the rise, and I had to wait before starting Lynparza, a PARP inhibitor which causes respiratory symptoms similar to coronavirus.

Today I’m thriving. My last scans and MRI were all clear. My blood levels are good. My CA125 is under control, and I’m living my best life considering this odd time we’re living in. 

My Mom, on the other hand, wasn’t as fortunate. Her cancer came back after being in remission for only a year. The return was fierce, and there was nothing that her medical team could do for her.  The tumor latched on to her liver, and it spread like fire.  We spent New Year’s Day of 2018 at the hospital, hanging on for a miracle. Eleven days later, she passed on, in my home, holding my hand, while we shared our final prayer together. I was with her during her final breath, and I was broken, but I also knew there was a reason and a purpose for that moment, and for the battle that we shared. Whatever it was, I know it will unveil in time.

If I can leave one thing, and only one thing, it would be this: “God bandages the wounds He makes; His hand hurts you, and His hand heals.” I’m a living miracle of that.

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