Becoming the Best U: Lessons cancer taught me

By Nancy Plummer, Columnist, The Times

I am one of the lone survivors of ovarian cancer stage 4 and metastatic brain cancer. As we all just celebrated World Ovarian Cancer Awareness Day and Brain Cancer Awareness Month, I thought it best to bring more attention to it and do what I could to help others learn more about this deadly disease. I recognize that ovarian cancer is hard to diagnose since its symptoms are just a whisper of what many aging women deal with on a day-to-day basis. However, in the US alone, almost 20,000 women were diagnosed with ovarian cancer last year and more than 13,000 died.

The following contains an excerpt from my recently published book, “Becoming the Best U While Your Life is Going Down the Drain – The Lessons Cancer Taught Me.”

“Looking back, my case was like so many women now dead and gone. I had felt bloated for months on end. Despite my lack of appetite, when I did try to eat, I had trouble digesting food. I was constantly going to the bathroom to pee, but my constipation could last as long as a week.  

I called my gynecologist of twenty-five years and made an emergency appointment two days before Thanksgiving. As a superstar in the world of gynecology, I was certain he was the right person to share my worries with. I hadn’t told anyone about the visit. As sick as I felt, I was still nervous and embarrassed to see him for fear he would think I was overreacting.

I was dressed for success, having just come from a meeting with a prospective client. We started out with small talk, his asking about my three children whom he helped bring into this world, my asking about his practice, his marriage, his son. My anxiety was growing. “Something is wrong with me; I just know it!” I blurted out. He looked at me and smiled. “Nancy, look at you. You look beautiful and you’ve always been a perfect specimen of health.”  

I stared at him dumbfounded. The voice in my head was screaming, “what does wearing a pretty outfit and makeup have to do with my health?!” I felt like a little girl being scolded by her teacher after asking to see the nurse. My mind was reeling. Did he know how hard it was to gather the courage to make an appointment? Did he realize how dismissive his words were? Did he not trust my intuition? I was livid. After a heated discussion he begrudgingly agreed to schedule an ultrasound a couple of weeks out. I left his office feeling angry, confused, and humiliated.

I didn’t tell anyone about my appointment with my doctor, nor about my upcoming scan. After the test I waited impatiently for my results. I was sure they would have an answer to my pain. They never called. Ten days after the scan I finally called them. My test was clean. The nurse didn’t suggest a follow-up appointment and I was too deflated to request one. Despite my unimproved condition, according to my doctor I was officially a healthy woman.

I spent the next seven months fighting through discomfort and indigestion. The pain I felt increased so gradually that I was able to adjust and compensate; I kept up with my demanding work schedule, gym routine, and family outings as my symptoms worsened and my condition steadily deteriorated. By the end of June, I could barely force down one meal a day; to make up for lost calories and to self-medicate my unbearable pain, I had taken to drinking multiple glasses of wine. My body had suffered enough, and at the end of a particularly grueling week I knew I could not go on like this any longer.

A friend brought me to the emergency department where the on-call doctor decided to perform a quick ultrasound. Again, it came back clean, and again my doctor tried to discharge me with a clean bill of health. This time I was determined not to let my doctor have the last word. At my insistence, he ordered a CT scan. Three hours later, I was finally diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

They call ovarian cancer the silent killer; maybe it is just that no one is listening.” 

In retrospect, I would have done so many things differently. In addition, I am asking all of us to become better caregivers too.

I would have listened to my body as my pain increased. We all know our bodies best, and even if we don’t know why we feel pain, we need to take it seriously. I kept making excuses for the pain, because I didn’t feel I could afford to stop working and deal with it. That old mantra “health is wealth” never rang so true.

I would have told my loved ones about my pain. As friends and family shared with me later, they wished they had known the struggles I was going through so they could have helped advocate for me. Please, if you notice one of your loved ones is dealing with pain, whether physically or emotionally, say something. Ask questions, dig deep, and don’t let them make excuses for their pain. Be an advocate.

I wouldn’t have been embarrassed to call my doctor about my pain. In fact, I’m sure now that I would have brought one of my children or friends to help me advocate if I was at all worried he would not share my concerns. Also, I wouldn’t have accepted his dismissive remarks “you look beautiful and you’ve always been a perfect specimen of health.” With confidence and respect, I would have insisted he take my concerns seriously. Make sure your loved one is getting the respect they deserve. If not, help them get it. Make the call for them or go with them to the appointment. As a patient, it’s very difficult sometimes to advocate for yourself, hear what the doctor is saying, or ask all the right questions.

I would have pushed for more testing by my healthcare team when I heard the negative result of the ultrasound. In the meantime, I would have started a health journal to monitor my symptoms and keep my loved ones and healthcare team up to date. Offer to help your loved one with health journaling and staying in touch with their healthcare team.

I would have continued advocating for myself until I discovered the cause of my pain and the solution. Please continue to advocate for your loved ones.

Trust me, I learned the hard way, your medical team is there to support you. You are its leader! Speak up! It may save your life!

Imagine if more women like me were determined to shout above ovarian cancer’s menacing whispers and tell the world of its existence.

Be inspired by Helen Reddy’s empowering message,

I am woman, hear me roar.

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