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The best and worst thing about cancer is life is never the same after you’ve been diagnosed. For me, being healthy used to mean fitting in a lunchtime workout at the gym, but these days, I measure my progress by blood tests and CT scan results. Hearing my doctor utter three mundane words, “Everything looks good,” is like winning a victory lap–the result of enduring dozens of inch-long needles that have ruined my veins, the impending nausea, and the countless days I was too sick to get out of bed.
But somewhere along the way, through the fear, tears, anger, pain, and dizzying realization of my mortality, I shed the vestiges of those overwhelming emotions like a snake sloughs its skin and emerged a winner–a survivor. How I arrived here is a lesson in self-advocacy.
In February of 2008, after suffering weeks of indigestion and bloating, I started seeing a gastroenterologist. Because I celebrated Christmas and New Year’s in Mexico, I thought perhaps I had eaten too many roadside tacos or accidentally drunk the water.
When a prescription for heartburn did little to combat my symptoms by late March, my doctor ordered an ultrasound to determine why I was losing weight while my bloating continued to worsen. He called me when the test revealed two large masses on my ovaries. “One is the size of a softball,” he said, concerned. “You need to get on your gynecologist’s surgery schedule today.”
Panic instantly set in, but when I spoke to my GYN, she thought a cyst she had found on my right ovary years before had simply grown and needed to be removed. She promised to follow up with me when she returned from vacation a week later. I recall her casual response: “Your chances of having ovarian cancer are low.”
Her nonchalance was unsettling, and I insisted on getting answers immediately. I called her office at least five times a day while she was away. I don’t know what I expected her staff to do, but my daily harassment finally prompted the nurse practitioner to administer a CA-125 blood test, which measures the concentration of CA-125, a protein present in malignant tumors. CA-125 is found in greater concentration in ovarian cancer cells and has become one of the more reliable ways to identify and monitor the status of ovarian cancer.