By Amy Smith-Morris, BSP, PharmD and As Told To Madeleine Burry
The silver lining: Despite only having one ovary, three years later I got pregnant with my son.
Just after my wedding, my husband and I went to Italy and Greece for our honeymoon. We’re physically active and healthy eaters, but we do like to indulge a bit when we travel, so there was lots of pizza and wine and all that good stuff. When I got home and discovered I’d gained some weight, it felt inevitable—that’s what happens when you eat pizza all day!
But even after I got back to my regular routine, I still didn’t lose the honeymoon weight—in fact, I had gained an additional pound or two. Then came the heartburn. It was so bad, and almost anything I ate set me off. That’s what drove me to make an appointment with my general practitioner.
I assumed it would be a quick fix. Maybe I’d get some heartburn medication or find out that I had an ulcer or another treatable condition. But my doctor thought something else was going on.
Checking for fibroids and cysts.
I was so young—just 30 years old—that I don’t think anyone was thinking cancer. I wasn’t pregnant (my doctor’s first thought) so she sent me for an ultrasound to check for fibroids and cysts. Both growths are fairly common in young women, and they can become quite large and still be benign.
She called me when the results came in: I had a very large mass—8.2 inches long and 3.9 inches wide. It was a huge shock, but my doctor remained optimistic and didn’t feel there was reason to worry just yet.
I’m in healthcare myself—I work as an oncology pharmacist managing medications for people with cancer. I figured, given my age and the large size of the mass, it wasn’t cancerous. I clung to these hopes at first.
A CT scan would tell us more.
My doctor referred me to a gynecologist who scheduled me for a CT scan. My appointment wasn’t for a couple of weeks, which didn’t initially faze me. But that changed with each passing day; I just had a gut feeling things weren’t right. I thought, I can’t sit here with this huge tumor for two weeks waiting for an appointment. I started advocating for myself and got an appointment with a gynecologist the next day.
He was wonderful. He said to me, “Meet me in the local ER tomorrow morning, and I’ll make sure you get an emergency CT scan.” After the scan, I sat at the hospital with my mother and husband waiting for the results.
It had been less than two months since my wedding day.
The diagnosis was ovarian cancer.
In that ER waiting room, I felt in the pit of my stomach that it wasn’t going to be good news. When the doctor told us it was cancer‚ I had a million questions about the type I had, and what my chance of surviving was.
That’s how I was during treatment, too—always asking questions and thinking ahead. As a clinician, I’m trained to think about what’s next in terms of treatment. You don’t stop thinking that way when you become the patient
Unfortunately, there’s not too much you can tell about a tumor until you cut into it and look at it under a microscope, so there was a lot I didn’t know the day I learned I had cancer, which left me feeling unsettled. The next step was to make an appointment with a gynecologic oncologist for a biopsy.
After the biopsy, I learned that had something called a mixed tumor, which is a rare form of ovarian cancer. This was actually a good thing; it meant I had a 90 to 95 percent chance of living for five years after my diagnosis. (Beyond that, the stats aren’t as clear.) Women with epithelial ovarian cancer tumors, for example, have a much lower survival rate.
Having such a good prognosis felt like a miracle.
Going through surgery and chemo.
My doctor told me the tumor had engulfed my left ovary. So during surgery, he removed it along with the tumor, one of my fallopian tubes, and some lymph nodes.
I was lucky: My right ovary was OK. I could keep it and stay out of menopause, which was fabulous. Having my right ovary also meant I still had a possibility of being able to conceive.
After surgery, I had four cycles of chemo, spaced three weeks apart. It was an intense regiment to go through, but necessary to avoid reoccurrence.
Becoming a cancer survivor—and a mom.
After the chemo I got CT scans—first every three months, then every six—to check if the cancer had come back. (So far is hasn’t!) Then, a year later, in the summer of 2018, I discovered I was pregnant, and stopped the scans because they aren’t safe for unborn babies.
When you’re in your 30s and you only have one ovary, you’re holding your breath, hoping you can conceive. We were able to do so on our own, without using any fertility measures. It was the best surprise to my husband and me.
My son, Max, was born on St. Patrick’s Day, which some people say is lucky. Through all the lows we’ve been through, it’s nice to be able to enjoy such a positive piece of life on the other side of my diagnosis.
Life after cancer.
There are highs and lows of being a cancer survivor.
Some days, the treatment feels like something that happened in another lifetime, but at other moments, it’s front and center. For example, when I go in for a scan to make sure the cancer hasn’t come back, my life pauses. I don’t know which direction my life will take until the results come in. While I’m waiting to learn my fate, I worry about what would happen if I became sick again. I find myself thinking: How will we pay the mortgage without my income? What will happen to my son if I’m not around? It’s a burden I expect to bear for a long time.
There’s also a real positive side to having had ovarian cancer. Even before I was diagnosed, I worked in cancer care, helping people who were going through chemo manage their symptoms. I stumbled into oncology and discovered that I really like the patients and found the medications fascinating. There was no real reason for working in this area beyond that immediate appeal.
Now, after being diagnosed, I feel that this is what I’m supposed to be doing: This is the path I’m supposed to be on.
What I tell other women.
Ovarian cancer symptoms are so sneaky. We truthfully need a better way of detecting the disease, like a blood test or a scan. But since those options don’t exist yet, it’s so important to listen to your body.
If you have a feeling that something is wrong, know that it’s just you—not your doctor—who has to answer to the consequences. So even if your doctors say “Looks fine to me,” listen to your gut feeling and advocate for yourself.
If I hadn’t done that years ago, who’s to say where’d I be today.