Three years and five months ago, at age 51, I was diagnosed with stage 3C ovarian cancer. The letter C stands for Crap, as you are lucky as crap not to have a Stage 4.
I went to the gynecologist because I felt a sharp pain in the pelvic area. The food was a disaster. After one bite I felt congested and crampy. When my daughter and I were visiting New York, I couldn’t walk two blocks without wanting to pee. I snuck into a McDonald’s, then a Starbucks, then a Zara, then another Starbucks. “Mom, what’s your problem?”
I started taking estrogen and progesterone to avoid sagging skin, weight gain, and the general misery of aging. I had heard talk of hormone replacement therapy and the increased risk of ovarian cancer. My internist told me it was safe and I trusted my doctor. “It’s a very low dose. There’s nothing to worry about.’
According to a 2015 report I later saw in the Lancet, women who used hormone therapy showed a slightly increased risk of ovarian cancer. I don’t know if this is what caused my cancer, but I wish I had seen this study sooner.
Every morning I squirted a dime sized ball of hormone cream on the inside of my hand and rubbed it in. Eight months later I had cancer. It turned out that my tumor was estrogen receptor positive, which means that the estrogen was probably feeding some little irregular cells hanging around my ovaries. The pain I felt was a thick cancer that had spread.
After a total hysterectomy, I told my kids I was going to start chemotherapy.
My 9-year-old son asked, “Are you going to die?”
Jackson, 14, said: “Shut up Sloan.”
11 year old Blake said nothing. Blake knew the loss. She had already lost her identical twin sister to a congenital heart defect at 16 months. I stared into her face. “I’m not going anywhere.”
I could tell Blake wasn’t buying it. She went to her room.
When I was 15, a mental hospital almost ruined my life. This advice saved me.
By the time I get the call, most people have already discussed treatment options with their family. The children are in shock and afraid of losing their parent. The parent is afraid of missing out on graduations, weddings, grandchildren. I was.
I have spoken to Laura several times since she was diagnosed four months ago. As with all cancer callers, I listened to her symptoms, diagnoses, and what her family felt she should do. Laura wanted to hear what worked for me – the secret to staying alive.
“I have a list,” I said. “Things I watched, listened to, read, ingested, injected, followed and ate.”
What I didn’t tell Laura was that I nearly broke and went crazy trying everything that was offered to me: massage, acupuncture, energy healing, herbal medicine, meditation, oils, pills, retreats. I hired a psychic and a functional nutritionist, did a juice cleanse, fasted every Monday, and went vegan. I cut out gluten, sugar and caffeine. I ate sprouts, mushrooms and seaweed.
Do I recommend this to the newly diagnosed? no My mode is not what you want to hear when you watch 16 rounds of poison. Cancer takes getting used to. This is shocking. A challenge. Life changing. It is disgusting, terrifying, exhausting and humiliating. By the time you become bald and hate life, you are ready to try anything to avoid suffering like this again, so you start looking for secrets. Then I send my list.
After our first call, I drove to Laura’s house and left some grass tires with a note: “You have this. These will help.”
We needed a break from cancer. So we RVed across the country and learned some unexpected things.
Speaking today, Laura said: “The last chemo knocked me on my ass. I want to stop, but my doctor told me that if I stop, there is an 80 percent chance the cancer will come back. She said her daughter was scared and made her finish the treatment.
Chemotherapy can cause all kinds of problems. Steroids kept me up all night. The smell of everything made me sick, and my legs and arms felt like a red ant dance party. The thought of an upcoming infusion made me anxious and sad.
I wanted to tell Laura that she’s going to be okay, but I have no idea if Laura is going to be okay. I have no idea if I’m going to be okay.
I hate being a cancer expert. Not just because I’m busy and everyone who calls needs a lot of time, or because every call takes me back to the day I told my family, or because I feel pain for everyone involved, or because I have no secrets. I hate being the cancer expert because I’m afraid the joke will be on me—that cancer will see me giving advice and laugh at me all the way to the chemotherapy chair. Or worse, I will be resistant to chemotherapy.
I told Laura to listen to her heart, not her daughter. When the tumor was still attached to my colon after chemotherapy, I said no to another surgery, especially one that might leave me with a colostomy bag. I traveled to Hawaii and took letrozole, which lowered my estrogen, hoping my cancer would go away. Then I got into nutrition and meditation completely. I stopped worrying about what other people wanted for me.
Three months later I was cancer free.
My hair is finally below my shoulders. I have eyebrows again. I like not caring about everyone. But with survival comes responsibility. Like it or not.
His bank card was declined. A stranger stepped up and now they are “friends for life.”
That’s the thing, people facing chemotherapy, a bald head and a shortened life have to believe in an expert, someone who has slayed the beast. I referred a friend who is a triple negative breast cancer survivor. She brought me weed gum and walked me through my first chemo. She was my gold medalist. I’m now on the podium until further notice and we all know what that notice is.
So today, and hopefully forever, I’m your expert.