They call ovarian cancer the silent killer; more accurately many call it the cancer that whispers. The signs of ovarian cancer can be incredibly subtle often mimicking other health issues like IBS, Crohns disease, overactive bladder and other “female ailments” so diagnosis is often delayed leading to 75% of women with ovarian cancer undiagnosed or misdiagnosed until they reach stage 3 or 4.
The signs of ovarian cancer can include some or all of the following:
1. Bloating with or without constipation and/or diarrhea
2. Frequent urination.
3. Feel full after eating very little food.
4. Pain or discomfort during sex
5. Pelvic or abdominal pain
6. Heartburn or upset stomach
9. menstrual changes or irregular vaginal bleeding.
This is how it happened for me:
Leading up to my diagnosis I had vague symptoms that I was completely unaware that they could be signs of ovarian cancer. I was very busy in my life at that time working on achieving two bachelor degrees and I graduated in May of 2014 Summa Cum Laude; the highest academic honor. For a couple of months before graduation I had been having constipation issues that I brushed off as being caused by my wacky school schedule and not allowing myself enough time in the mornings to use the bathroom. I began to drink Miralax a few days a week to get rid of the constipation and it worked but I always still felt like I was bloated and when I would eat dinner I would become full easily and feel very uncomfortable in my belly. I started to notice that my abdomen was growing and so I measured my waistline. It had increased by almost two inches. I mentioned this to my husband and a few close friends. They told me that I was being unrealistic to expect to keep a slim waist after the age of 40 and that I must be experiencing premenopause symptoms. I was embarrassed for complaining about going from size 0 to size 2 so I let it go after deciding that I would increase my running schedule to combat the weight gain in my midsection.
During that time in 2014 I was running 25-30 miles a week. I was also teaching yoga six classes a week and practicing yoga daily. After graduation, I had the time to increase my workout schedule but the increase in my waistline did not shrink and I began to notice that I was having to urinate all the time. I explained this away as well. I was drinking a ton of water to try and lose weight so I thought the increased urination was caused by that. One thing that I will mention that was unusual about the increase in urinary frequency was that I would empty my bladder and within an hour I felt the need to urinate again. I would visit the bathroom again and just a few drops came out even though I felt like my bladder was very full. I never mentioned this to anyone and just kept drinking my water in hopes of losing weight.
In august of 2014 our family moved and I was very busy with packing and deep cleaning of our old house and the new house. I started to have symptoms of being short of breath and I was waking up in the middle of the night feeling like I was drowning. I would sit up gasping for breath and walk the halls of my home. I started to use my sons asthma inhaler thinking I was having a return of asthma that I suffered as a child. I made an appointment with my family doctor and he diagnosed me with a condition called pleurisy. This is an irritation of the lining of the lungs. We thought the use of cleaning products caused this and I started a five day regimen of steroids to clear it up. At that doctor visit I requested a referral to see an asthma doctor to rule out the possibility of asthma. I made an appointment with that specialist for a week later and went home to start the steroids.
That was a hard week for me. I continued my running schedule and my job teaching yoga but it was getting harder to breathe every day. I continued to wake up every night gasping for air and I started to feel scared. On the day of my diagnosis I woke up and went to work. I taught my first class but could not teach the second one so I went home sick. I was scheduled to see the asthma doctor that afternoon and I remember taking a shower before my appointment and having to lay down after showering because I was so out of breath. I called my husband and he insisted on meeting me for my doctors appointment.
When I was examined by the specialist, she informed me that my right lung seemed collapsed and that I needed to go to the emergency room immediately. I remember feeling very frustrated because I had just started my graduate school program and that evenings class was very important and could not be missed. I asked the doctor if I could go to school and visit the emergency room after class. Both her and my husband demanded that I go to the hospital immediately so off we went.
In the emergency room I received xrays and then a cat scan of my chest. A few hours later I was told I had a plueral effusion in my right lung and then they scanned my abdomen. I made the mistake of googling on my phone and I knew something was very wrong. After the abdominal cat scan I was told that I had stage four gynecological cancer, that I was being admitted to hospital so they could drain off the fluid around my lung, and that an oncologist would see me in the morning. By that time my four children were with me and our whole family was in serious shock over this. It seemed a nightmare that we could not wake up from. Our lives were forever changed on that day.
This is where the essential support of Be Well and Yoga came in. I was in the hospital for 17 days. During that time, Heidi and Mary visited me and held private Be Well sessions with me and my family that included positive visualizations and meditations. They knew how much my physical yoga practice mattered to me so one day they mentally led me through an entire yoga class in our minds. I will never forget those visits and how they calmed the absolute terror in my mind… for an hour or so at least. They held my hand and walked with me through those first weeks of the unknown that I was facing with this most serious of cancer diagnosis.
I had a few lung drainings before I received my surgery. Surgery was followed with a year of chemotherapy before I was declared no evidence of disease. I enjoyed a year of cancer free life before the cancer returned.
I had another surgery in the summer of 2016 to remove the cancer that had now spread to my lymph nodes and a small area in my right lung. I had part of my lung removed and many lymph nodes taken out. I received HIPEC during that surgery. HIPEC is a heated chemo bath administered directly into the abdomen at the end of surgery in hopes of killing any microscopic cells. I had another six months of chemotherapy and was declared cancer free again in April of 2017.
I developed lymphedema in the fall of 2017 that affects both of my legs and my abdomen with chronic swelling of trapped lymphatic fluid. This condition is incurable and must be managed for the rest of my life with therapy and compression garments worn 24 hours a day. I suffer side effects from the 50 plus chemo treatments I have endured so far. I have neuropathy in my feet, hearing loss and constant ringing in my ears, daily joint and muscle pain, and bouts of fatigue that keep me in bed some days.
My yoga practice has kept me sane during all the dark days of cancer treatments. Whenever I am physically able, I roll out my yoga mat in community with wonderful people to breathe and move together. Yoga brings peace to my mind and benefits to my body.
I am proud to say that I became a certified Be Well yoga instructor with the first cohort of Be Well graduates and have had the great pleasure of leading Be Well classes. As a yoga teacher and a cancer survivor I have the unique perspective of knowing the mental and physical stresses that cancer survivors experience. Our scars go far below the surface of the skin. The side effects of cancer treatments can fade but often remain at some level indefinitely…a cancer diagnosis changes your life forever. Having a yoga and meditation practice helps so much to deal with all the changes that cancer brings as we struggle to find our new normal.
Last year the cancer returned again and this time it spread throughout my lymph system from my throat to my pelvis. It has infiltrated my lungs and my intestines causing havoc with my digestive system with partial bowel blockages that have caused me to be hospitalized four times since thanksgiving of last year.
My husband and I travelled all the way to Boston seeking clinical trials and second opinions from the best doctors in this country. I was able to try immunotherapy and the latest advanced treatments for ovarian cancer but the cancer is proving to be stubborn and resistant to the treatments. In two weeks I will once again start chemotherapy with hope that we can beat this cancer back into submission and gain me a third remission.
The reality is that I may be on chemotherapy for the rest of my life to try and control the disease like a chronic condition. If chemotherapy fails to work this time then I will again seek clinical trial opportunities throughout this country to find a way to gain more time. Time to live and love with my family and friends. Time to enjoy more travel and good times. Time to see my grandchildren grow and my children bloom in their adult lives. Time to spend with my sweet husband and enjoy each others company after 25 years of raising a family together.
I just want more time.
Right now, yoga enables me to stay in the present moment and enjoy the NOW. Spending time here at La Costa enjoying this magical weekend of yoga and great company is what life is all about. The benefits of having a yoga practice while living with cancer are innumerable. When the fear of the future comes rushing in at me, my yoga practice has taught me to stop and breathe.
Lets all stop and breathe together for a moment. Close your eyes as you sit up tall.
Take a deep breath in the nose and let it out the mouth.
Now take two more just like that…..
Can you feel how stopping to take three conscious breaths can bring a calmness to your nervous system and a clarity to your mind?
That is your yoga.
Staying in the present moment and breathing through the all the stuff life throws at you is your yoga. Taking time for yourself to care for your health and well being is your yoga. Carving out the time to sit in silence everyday is your yoga.
Yoga has wonderful benefits for the body and many people seek out yoga for the physical benefits they receive. But the true gift of yoga is that it allows you to uncover the layers of junk that life can pile on
You and it connects you with your true self.
The you that is divine.
My yoga practice will keep me going through this next step on my cancer journey and be well will be right by my side all the way. The support that Mary and Heidi have grown in the north san diego yoga community for cancer survivors is incredible. The studio owners that have stepped up and donated studio space for yoga classes is priceless.
The knowledgeable be well yoga teachers that show up every week to teach their classes with loving hearts are very special individuals. And the students who attend class and care deeply about each others lives are truly inspiring.
None of us can do this thing called life alone.
Yoga literally translated means union. The love within my yoga community is the most beautiful and supporting love that I have ever known.
I want to thank Be Well again for inviting me to share my story today. It is an ongoing story of great struggle with interwoven times of great joy and immense gratitude. My heart is full of gratitude today for all of you that have joined this weekend in support of Be Well and in support and love for yourselves and those around you. Thank you so much for being here.