10 Things I Learned from an Ovarian Cancer Diagnosis
Ovarian cancer is referred to as a silent killer. Often, women with this particular kind of cancer don’t know they have it until they start having significant symptoms. I know this firsthand, because I was diagnosed last month with Stage Four Ovarian Cancer. I had very few symptoms of cancer, and the symptoms I did have could be easily explained by stress, depression, or any number of other common ailments. My cancer diagnosis has given some important health and life lessons that all military spouses and active duty military members (particularly female) should be aware of:
- First of all, know your risk factors. When I was in the Air Force, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome, and I used fertility treatments to assist in getting pregnant with my children. Specifically, I used Clomid to stimulate my ovaries. Both fertility treatments AND polycystic ovarian syndrome put you at greater risk for developing gynecological cancers. In retrospect, I would have continued to use Clomid to assist in having children, but I would have been more aggressive in monitoring my reproductive health after I was done having children. Furthermore, I think that women who are seeking fertility treatments need to be aware of the risks that may occur later in life. My doctors were not forthcoming with discussing the long-term risks of these treatments.
- Know your body and document any changes (even seemingly minor ones). I had very few symptoms of cancer before I was diagnosed, and they were easily explained away. The noticeable symptoms included lethargy/tiredness, some difficulty breathing during strenuous exercise, minor depression, and changes in my period. I concluded that the tiredness was from my stressful life. My son has autism and my daughter started 4th grade with a health crisis. I just thought that the exhaustion was just a side effect of my life. I was in a chemical accident when I was in the military, so I assumed my breathing issues during exercise were a result of that accident. Instead, it was caused by building fluid in my pleural cavity from cancerous lymph nodes. My dad had passed away in June 2015, and figured the depression was a result of that loss, rather than hormonal changes caused by cancer. I am nearing 40, and figured since I had difficulty getting pregnant early that my reproductive system was entering early menopause. Instead of having the symptoms checked out from I doctor, I relied on these easy explanations for each symptom. Even though in majority of cases the simplest explanation is often the correct one, always talk to your doctor about any changes even minor ones. Do NOT skip your annual appointments, just because you assume that you are healthy.
- If you are in the military, when you get out, document EVERYTHING. During TAPS briefings, and while I was registering with the VA, I documented every ailment I had in the five years I served. Even if you do not draw disability compensation from your conditions, if those conditions worsen, you can always reapply, or upgrade your disability at Veteran’s Service Office. In my case, I upgraded my disability compensation from 10% to 100%. It doesn’t make up for the fact that I have cancer, but it will help defray some unexpected costs from the treatment. For example, my oncologist is over an hour drive away, and my treatments are five to eight hours long. On days when my husband can’t watch the kids, I have to pay for childcare, and Tricare is not reimbursing me my travel expenses.
- Remember that medical professionals work for you, even if you are a military dependent. During the last few years, there has been a shift in the way military spouses are treated by active duty, and others. We as group of people have been told we are entitled and demanding. Even if you are using Tricare as your primary insurance, you are entitled to appropriate care, and even (gasp) the best care. Military health benefits are part of your spouse’s (or your) compensation package. Do not settle for the idea that you get what you pay for, and your health care is free—it is NOT free. Before my diagnosis, I was Tricare Prime, and went to the flight medicine clinic, because that’s where adult family members are “supposed” to go. I had no co-pays, and it was seemingly free. I had complained on countless occasions about the bedside manner of the doctors, and how I felt like a burden rather than a patient. My last appointment I waited almost two hours to see my doctor. I ended up leaving and switching to Standard. This switch saved my life. No matter what other spouses, and active duty members say, you are worth good health care.
- Get a team of people that you can count on. Cancer, or no cancer, this is imperative for a military spouse. Do not isolate yourself on the Internet, and don’t listen to the negative things you hear about other military spouses. Try to make friends that you can trust and count on, especially if you have children. Crisis can pop up at ANY time, to ANYONE. Just because you are healthy, happy, and functioning well, does not make you immune to needing help at some point. This is especially true when you are thousands of miles from home, and there is no family in the area that you can rely on.
- Smile and laugh. I have had good days, and I have had really, really bad days. Every morning I get up, look in the mirror, and I smile, even on those really bad days when I am smiling through tears. I have had gone through every stage of grief, and some of those stages three or four times in the same day. That five second smile has gotten me through some of the worst aspects of this cancer.
- Forgiveness is freeing. Forgiving, and being forgiven, is freeing. Before I was diagnosed, I held grudges, was sometimes negative, and no matter how hard I worked at it, I always saw the bad in the situation. Cancer slapped me in the face. The first thing I did was contact a friend I had had a falling out with, and asked for forgiveness. I thought that if I was going to die from this, I was not going to die without asking those I wronged for forgiveness, and forgive those who have wronged me. Even though I felt crummy, I felt so much better afterwards. Besides asking for forgiveness and forgiving others, be sure to forgive yourself. I forgave myself, and it was the best thing I ever did.
- Be active. One of the risk factors for many cancers is obesity. One of the primary causes of obesity in the United States is inactivity. Being active while sick has been one of my saving graces. Activity releases endorphins, helps with many of the side effects from chemotherapy, and it just feels good to get out in the fresh air. Before I was diagnosed I was training for a marathon, now I’m happy to walk a mile each day. It is not the marathon training I was doing before I was diagnosed, but just walking has helped me immensely.
- Be grateful. This entire crisis has made me realize how fragile, miraculous, and beautiful life is. Every day I get up, still breathing is a good day.
- Define yourself by your positive attributes not your negative ones. I am a military spouse, but my husband’s occupation does not define me. I am a cancer patient, but being sick with cancer does not completely define me. I have ADD and Aspergers (a form of autism), and even that does not define me. Even though I am those three things, I try not to let those things be all that I am. It can be very hard sometimes, but I am more than a cancerous spacy woman whose husband has the job of defending our country. I am a runner—I have run 10 marathons. I am a writer—I have written for several blogs, books, completed one novel (not published), and am working on my second novel. I am an artist—I enjoy painting, doing mosaics, drawing, and dabble in photography.
Cancer has been a huge life lesson. The items I listed above are merely the tip of the iceberg. Even though I am not even close to being done with my treatments (I just finished two weekly infusions out of 18 total treatments), I already feel like a survivor. I am sharing my story because I feel that it is very important for women not to neglect themselves, especially when we put so much effort into filling the many roles we have. When we have children, get married, or even get a job, we tend to put our health and needs on the backburner while caring for our families. We’re worth making ourselves a priority.