How I Dealt With Getting Ovarian Cancer Twice

ovarian-cancer

Back in January 2012, I stopped getting a period for six months. When I finally went to see my family doctor, who agreed it was weird—at that time, I was 32, in my reproductive prime—she did an ultrasound, which showed a small mass on my right ovary. She then sent me to a gynecologist for follow-up. When I saw the gynecologist in July, she asked me, “Well, do you have any pain?” I said no. She said, “Do you have any other symptoms?” I said no. So she told me to stop complaining. She changed my birth control, which she said would restart my periods. It did, so I didn’t think anything of it. But then January 2013, I stop getting a period, so I went back to my family doctor and said, there’s something wrong now, this is not normal, but I asked her to send me to a different gynecologist.

As I waited to see the second gynecologist, my period came like a bloody vengeance—it was every day for what turned out to be the end of the year—so for six months, solid. And it kept progressively getting worse. When I finally got in to see the second gynecologist, she said it looks like a fibroid, it’s acting like a fibroid, I think it’s a fibroid, so let’s just get it out.

But by the time of my pre-op appointment, the mass was so big it was actually covering the ovary, so she couldn’t see the ovary in the ultrasound. My estrogen levels were sky high and the lining in my uterus was three times the normal thickness.

When I went in for surgery on January 2014, the mass had actually consumed my ovary, it was basically in the middle of this mass, so she just took out the whole ovary despite her efforts to save it.

When the pathology came back, the report said it was a tumour of “low malignant potential,” so my doctor interpreted that as being benign, so she told me that and said we would just keep an eye on it. So I was like, “Fantastic. It’s benign. I don’t have cancer.” She never used the word “cancer.” So I went back to a normal life. I have a very high-stress, demanding job that I enjoy. I was jogging and biking and doing boot camp and travelling and living life. I was in a relationship and we were talking about getting married and having kids, and she assured me that even with one ovary I had plenty of options. So I thought, “OK, life is good.”

But then a year later, in January 2015, I start noticing that I had heartburn at night, but I told myself it was because I’m celiac. I was really tired but dismissed it; everybody gets tired. I was bloated, too. Since I was doing regular follow-ups with my gynecologist, I called to schedule an appointment. She did an ultrasound in her office and found a mass where my right ovary used to be. By the time I had the MRI two weeks later, the mass had doubled, so she booked me for OR time. She sent me to the cancer centre for a pre-op consult. She said she just wanted their opinion. My surgeon, who wasn’t aware that my doctor hadn’t told me anything was like, ‘Well, the cancer’s back, we’ve got to deal with this cancer and it looks like it’s spread.’” Everything stopped.

I was like, “You’re telling me I have cancer?” And he’s like, “Yes, yes. It’s cancer.” And he’s looking at me like, are you stupid?

From that moment on you’re thrown into patient life, I went from having a very full and active and rich life—I had all these activities and volunteering that I did and all of a sudden the veil comes down and it was just appointment after appointment after appointment. You’re just trying to deal with this diagnosis, and all these questions come up about your mortality and then dealing with the guilt of having to tell your family. They’re looking at you like, what do you mean? My mother was so distraught, and my dad, to this day, has such a hard time talking about it.

So the surgeon sent me for a CT scan, which confirmed that there were nodules on my bowel and my colon, and there was some disease on my omentum (lining that covers the stomach) and some nodules on my pelvis. A biopsy confirmed that it was a reoccurrence. The first time around it was just Stage 1, because it was confined to my ovary; the second time around it was Stage 3, because it had spread, it was everywhere—on my uterus and in my left ovary.

I went in for surgery and they did a hysterectomy and I had a very talented surgeon who was able to remove the disease from my bowel and colon without having to resect any of it. He was able to remove all of the disease basically. I had two months to recover and then we started the chemotherapy. I don’t think there’s anything that could ever prepare you for that level of sick, because they really do take you to what feels like the brink of death to cure you. But it worked, and I ended my treatment in October 2015. Now it’s just follow-up, which is pretty aggressive in itself, because specifically with my sub-type of ovarian cancer, it does have a high reoccurrence rate.

If I could offer any advice, I’d say know your history, know your genetics and risk factors (having the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes increase your chance of getting it), so when you walk in and you have a doctor who’s like, “Listen, you probably just have some bad cramps,” you’re like, “No. I know my body, I know my history, I know what I’ve got. Either you’re on board with me or I find someone else.” (Visit Ovarian Cancer Canada for info on everything you need to know.)

Your relationship with your health care provider is like any other relationship in your life. You have to put work into it, you have to set expectations with them, just like they set expectations with you. So being in that place where I can walk in there and be that advocate for myself.

Once you go through cancer, you build a lot of resilience and a lot of strength. If it comes back one day, it comes back. I’ll deal with it and I’ll be OK. No matter what.

—Kelly Anne Branco (as told to Emilie Dingfeld)

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