Several years ago I had the surreal experience of being told I had cancer while I was in a hospital bed with morphine dripping into my arm. I had gone into the hospital a day earlier for routine surgery for an ovarian cyst that my original doctor told me I could either have removed immediately or just “wait and see.” I opted to have it removed immediately since it was winter, and I wanted to be able to rock climb that summer.
I was diagnosed with Stage IIC ovarian cancer, but it was fortunate that I was diagnosed early. My original doctor told me that, at age 30, I was way too young for cancer and that I shouldn’t worry. Later, I happened to meet and talk with a fellow climber/doctor who urged me to see a gynecologic oncologist. Fortunately, by going to a “gyn onc,” I was staged correctly during the initial surgery. Studies show that when a gyn-oncologist performs the surgery, survival rates increase up to 25%.
My chemo treatments left me bald. I hated wearing wigs because they were just too high maintenance. When I wore scarves, I felt everyone’s looks of sympathy because they could tell I was sick. On one particularly hot day I asked my boyfriend if he minded if I took my scarf off. Of course he didn’t, but when I did, I felt naked, like I was topless or something. The next morning I made a decision. I rode my bike to the tattoo shop and had a dragon tattooed on my head. Dragons are a symbol of strength and protection. With my head decorated I didn’t feel naked being bald and no one gave me looks of sympathy anymore. In fact they looked at me like I was a badass which was pretty cool.
During my good days I’d go rock climbing, take pottery classes, rest, meet with my knitting circle, and eat really healthy foods. I’d even ride my bike six or so miles every week when I had to get my blood work done. I took two climbing weekends at Seneca Rocks, WV. Six months later, I got the news that I was cancer free. I threw a big party and called it the “Bury the Dragon” Party: my hair would grow back and the dragon tattoo would be buried forever, never to be seen again.
In 2008, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer again, but with a new cell type. I had to have a complete hysterectomy and more chemotherapy. This time the chemo happened during a very bad flu season and I couldn’t go to work or to the climbing gym because my white blood cell counts were so low. I spent most of my days knitting and watching movies. When the weather was nice enough I rode my bike around the river. That New Year’s Day I had another party and invited close family and friends. Everyone was told to be there at 5:00 pm for a New Year’s toast. People speculated that my boyfriend and I were getting engaged that evening. Instead, we got married right then and there. It was a blast and the best thing I ever did!
That Spring I was elected to the Board of Directors of the HERA Women’s Cancer Foundation. I was declared cancer free once again on May 12, 2009. Less than three months later I rode my bike 540 miles from Burlington, VT to Palmerton, PA in one of the country’s most challenging organized rides.
What started out as a completely surreal experience has turned into an incredible journey, learning some huge life lessons:
• Doing what you love is important, but sometimes doing what you love is impossible. So you have to get up and find something else to love, and then go do that.
• I’m very lucky to have people in my life who care about me.
• Be your own advocate and when you can’t, ask for help.
• Every morning I wake up is precious, and I try to relish each day.
All in all, I feel lucky to have been diagnosed early, and I am grateful to be alive. I want to give back by being a part of the HERA Community to help spread awareness and stop the loss of women from ovarian cancer. My climbing team is called Bury the Dragon, and I will be participating in the 8th Annual HERA Climb4LifeSM DC on July 13, 2013. I hope you will join me for a really fun weekend of climbing and hiking to benefit the HERA Women’s Cancer Foundation: www.herafoundation.org. See you there!