I am an ovarian cancer survivor. So many emotions bubble up inside of me when I make that statement. Believe it or not, shame is the one that registers highest on the ol' feelings-o-meter. Why? I have long struggled with the feeling that my cancer experience pales in comparison with those of other survivors' so greatly that I downplay it at best and flat-out pretend it never happened at worst. I have first-hand knowledge of the kind of cancer that takes every last vestige of hope and energy away from you, ultimately ending in the loss of precious life. My family and I were all right there with my baby brother, Russell, when the heavy burden of a brain tumor was laid on his slight, young shoulders. We watched him battle through surgery, chemo, radiation and other treatments that left him weak and sick. We saw him lose range of motion and slip into a coma. We gathered at his bedside when it was "time" on more than one occasion, including that October day when his suffering was ended.
However, that same painful path was not planned for me. And, I might as well just say it, I feel guilty that what was laid on me was such "a walk in the park" in comparison.
My friends, family and gynecologic oncologist (not to mention the bikini-prohibiting scar I acquired at just 21 years old) often have to remind me that my 8-lb tumor and the surgery that I went through to remove it were not "nothing." At the same time, I was once told that my stage 1, level 1 tumor was "barely cancer," as if there were such a thing. Since my pre-op CA-125 (the blood test that detects ovarian cancer) was negative, I didn't even know that the watermelon-sized tumor that made me look three months pregnant was cancer until after the surgery to remove it. There were several days of waiting--in the hospital and once I was home-- to find out if my cancer was all contained in the tumor or not, but I still can't help thinking, I didn't even know I had it until it was already gone.
Let me stop right now and say that I am so very thankful that I was spared the awful realities of cancer treatments like radiation and chemo. Not to mention the fact that while my tumor was hey-you-can't-ignore-me huge, the cancer itself did not progress beyond the first stage. Yet, even when saying that, the guilt weighs so heavy. Ladled upon these already shameful feelings, I think about the fact that I should be using my story as a means of hope and a light in the dark. I should be glorifying my God with unconstrained praise for not only sparing me such pain, but also for keeping my family from having to go through so much turmoil only 4 short years after Russell's passing. It breaks my heart to think of my parents during that time. My mom, curled uncomfortably on the chair next to my hospital bed, unsleeping at 4 a.m. when I finally awoke from a drug-induced slumber and telling me that it was in fact, cancer.
Instead, I mostly keep it to myself. Afraid that if people knew my story they would balk at my nerve to deem what I went through as surviving cancer. So I mention it in passing, wave it off when pressed for more details and sweat buckets when my family and friends request that I come to a Relay for Life and put on the purple shirt that says "Survivor" across the back in big, bold letters. I want it to remain this small thing that happened to me, yet at the same time, I so want other women to know that you can have this disease and not recognize the symptoms until it's too late. As a billboard screamed at me while traveling home over the Labor Day holiday, "Your pap smear won't detect ovarian cancer." This is me screaming for those of you who read this and do not know this fact. Please pass it on to other women you know. Wear teal on Friday, and when someone compliments you (they will, it's an awesome color), tell them why you're wearing it.
The Ovarian Cancer National Alliance's teal ribbon is in the photo at the top.