No one ever said to me, ‘Teresa, you only have 6 months to live,’ even though statistically that was probably my fate, and that has made all the difference in my recovery.
I come from strong physical stock and inherited a sort of “tough it out mentality” when it comes to coping with the usual aches and pains that creep up as you age. So by the time I realized that my legs had become so swollen and my breathing so labored it was difficult for me to walk, I could barely make my way into the emergency room of my local hospital to find out what was wrong.
It turns out I was in much worse shape than I could have imagined. An ultrasound of my abdomen showed that I had a large mass on my ovary, and a computed tomography (CT) scan found that I had blood clots in both legs, which had broken off and traveled to my lungs.
I was immediately taken to the intensive care unit for more diagnostic tests and treatment to dissolve the blood clots. Within 2 days, I was scheduled for surgery to biopsy the tumor, which turned out to be stage III ovarian cancer; a total hysterectomy and a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy followed to remove the remnants of the cancer. I remained in the hospital for 21 days and had to have physical therapy to learn how to walk again.
Unfortunately, the treatment didn’t end there. The surgery was followed by six rounds of a combination regimen of cisplatin and paclitaxel to kill off any remaining cancer cells, and for a while, it appeared the therapy had worked. A series of CT scans could find no trace of the cancer and for the first time in months, I started to relax.
However, 6 months later, the cancer (now stage IV) recurred in my liver, and I had six additional treatments of very aggressive chemotherapy, which included carboplatin and more paclitaxel to shrink the tumor, followed by surgery to remove what was left of the malignancy. Finally, I had 30 infusions of topotecan, the last one in September 2013, and so far, my CT scans show no signs of tumor recurrence.
Making Lifestyle Changes
Ever since my diagnosis, my overarching goal has been to maintain a sense of normalcy. I wear a wig so people can’t see that I’m a cancer survivor—I don’t want their pity. But I have also made some dramatic lifestyle changes in my life.
I left a high-stress job for one that doesn’t consume my every waking moment, and I’m taking better care of myself physically. I gave up my early-morning ritual of eating candy bars and drinking Coke for breakfast and have cut my refined sugar intake by more than 90%.
I’m also following the American Cancer Society guidelines for physical activity and exercise at least 150 minutes per week.
It’s pathetic to say, but at 51, I’m healthier now than I’ve ever been in my adult life.
I am also trying to maintain a positive attitude. I stopped going to ovarian cancer support group meetings, because I found them to be too sad. There was a real sense of hopelessness among many of the survivors there, and I have to remain positive to get through each day and put distance between cancer and me.
I’ve been fortunate to have a wonderful oncologist, who never speculates on what my ultimate outcome might be. Right from the very beginning, he gave me hope and said that he was going to do everything he could to treat my cancer. No one ever said to me, “Teresa, you only have 6 months to live,” even though statistically that was probably my fate, and that has made all the difference in my recovery.
I don’t know what the future will bring, but I am determined to embrace life and live every day as it comes. I’ve learned that a life without hope is no life at all. ■
Teresa Pedersen lives in Nampa, Idaho.
ASCO Answers: Managing the Cost of Cancer Care explains the various costs associated with cancer treatment, including health-care coverage through the Affordable Care Act. It also provides a list of financial resources available to help offset expenses related to care and tips for organizing...