September 26th, 2008
02:05 PM ET

Ovarian cancer: the Treatment room

By Karen Bonsignore
Executive Producer, CNN Entertainment News

If it’s Tuesday it must be chemo! There are seven chairs in my oncologist’s treatment room and most of the time they’re all filled. There’s an instant camaraderie between patients as we’re all battling the same beast. We mostly know each other by our first names and the kind of cancer we have. “Hi I’m Karen. I had ovarian cancer. What are you being treated for?” Lung, colon, and liver cancers dot the room on any given day but breast cancer seems to always dominate.

The “old-timers,” those who are at or near the end of their treatments, try to reassure newcomers and give them an idea of what to expect. “The first one won’t be so bad.” “Your hair will fall out after the second or third week.” “Make sure you ask your doctor for good drugs to help fight nausea.” Most everyone has a “port” through which the chemotherapy is administered and with our IVs connected and our blue “napkins” tucked into our shirt collars we look like adults gathered around the children’s table waiting for dinner.

For me, each treatment has been filled with an assortment of side effects ranging from nausea and neuropathy to extreme fatigue. When I completed my third treatment, out of a total of six, my personal cheerleaders reminded me, “You’re halfway there!” or “It’s downhill from here!” While I acknowledged their encouragement, I could only think to myself that I wanted to quit after round two. How the heck am I going to make it through three more?

At this writing I’ve just completed my last treatment. After four months of chemo I am finally done.

The nurses gave me a mini-cupcake with a candle in it and sang “Happy Last Chemo” to me. I looked into the faces of my acquaintances as they left. We exchanged wishes for good luck on the way out the door and I wondered how long these new friends would live. I wondered about my own condition.

One of my doctors told me that it’s not uncommon for people who have completed chemotherapy to become depressed. While going through treatment it feels like we’re taking an active step to kill whatever cancer cells remain. When it’s done, all you can do is wait.

I can’t go back to a time before my cancer was diagnosed, and so my life will never be the same again. The threat of recurrence is real and its presence has changed my life forever. While I’m wary of this phantom, worrying each day that I’ll be marked for another marathon dance is paralyzing. I now totally and completely understand that I have only the moment I’m in.

Having cancer has taught me to be more compassionate, more patient with others and myself, and to live my life more fearlessly. It has allowed me time to be with myself and to truly embrace my feelings. It has given me a chance to say “thank you” hundreds of times. As I write I am filled with love and gratitude for all of the support given to me by my extraordinary family, friends and co-workers, for all of the wonderful doctors and nurses who have taken care of me, and for all the others who have simply cared enough to stop and ask how I was doing.

I leave this place now with a brave and open heart, and with a little rest I’ll be ready again to deal with whatever comes next.

Have you faced down a disease? What was the biggest thing it taught you?

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soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. marisa paull

    i just passed my 2 yr. remission of hodgekin-lymphoma stage 2. I started 5 months of chemo @ 13 rounds of radiation after the major lump in my thyroid was removed Jan. 06".I was the youngest cancer patient at the oncologists treatment center in plantation, florida.everyone having chemo just steered at me, but they were so kind.I was a rare case in south florida! All my college went bananas checking every inch of their body after I was diagnoised,since i found the lump on my throat..I'm all honors in college and I work part-time at nordstroms.I love life and especially my mom, who hid her fears and crying from me...

    September 26, 2008 at 18:03 | Report abuse | Reply

    You are amazing!

    You're through with it. Now go and live your life. Eventually it will not be the olny thing you think about .....

    September 26, 2008 at 19:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Jill Pruitt

    I, too, have had ovarian cancer. I will have three years of remission next month and look forward to a time when I won't know how many months it has been. I don't know if it will ever come, but I hope so.

    I am now 38 years old. When I was diagnosed I was 34 years old and running as fast as I could on the corporate treadmill. I went through multiple surgeries, chemo, port infections, bacteremia, and truly crippling depression. I thought that I would do chemo, be done with it and close the book on that hideous chapter in my life. I know now that I will never close that chapter because the person who I was no longer exists. She can't. We are mutually exclusive. There is no way to look at life without viewing it through my slightly cancer-hued lense.

    I don't think that this is necessarily bad. I spend more time with my family, I am happier, healthier, and wiser than I was at my diagnosis. (I am also poorer, but that doesn't seem to mean as much now.) I still have bad habits, but having too many black shoes or drinking too much coffee seems petty compared to getting blood gases drawn every hour.

    You ask what I learned. I don't know how to define it – – Maybe I learned that who I was isn't who I wanted to be. Maybe that family is more important than the promotion. Maybe introspection? Hopefully I would have come to these conclusions without having cancer, but I doubt it.

    I had an extraordinary life but never knew it. Cancer showed it to me.

    September 28, 2008 at 01:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Sandra Vicari

    My mon has masses in both breast, two on the liver, and the colon has the largest mass. The doctor saids it is cancer .How can cancer attack so much, it is to much.
    She is 60 years of age.

    Thank you for your time

    September 28, 2008 at 20:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Karen Williams

    I feel like I have just read my story...only...oh wait. Even the name is the same. Yes, I am Karen also. I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in November of 2006. Late stage...they say. I, too was so very sick, tired and with more side affects than I can list here. I also cried at the end of treatments. I thought I was alone there but I see we must all feel the same. This disease has taught me so much. I have never enjoyed life as much as now. Every day...I realize that this may be the last ... that tomorrow may bring another surgery or round of chemotherapy. I am even remodeling my bedroom in case the time comes when I will no longer be able to leave my bed to see my arriving well-wishers. But I do have advice. Yes..you will think about this cancer every day...but you will learn not to dwell on it. You will wonder why someone gets angry in traffic, or why a boss will worry about the companies finances. It doesn't matter any more. What matters most are the friendships and family. I guess the hardest part now is knowing that those who love you will be hurt by your leaving this earth. If only we could make it easier for them. But now, we can only smile every day and give them the best we have to offer. We may not look the same but we can act like we don't have a care in the world even though we have more than most people. So I give you this... it is, what it is. Enjoy the days you have and know that all is well with your soul...for no one can take that away.

    September 28, 2008 at 21:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Nan M

    To be honest with you, the horror of cancer treatment (as you have experienced) prevents me from having any kind of cancer testing done, ever. I would just as soon not know and have to make the kinds of choices and face the decision to agree to put myself through this.
    Everything I read written by people who have submitted to cancer treatment terrifies me.
    Can't they even give you privacy in the chemo places so that you can endure it without a lot of people watching you?

    September 29, 2008 at 08:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. shraddha

    Bravo! you have faced the bad part already and now go on enjoy your life.
    DR Shraddha

    September 30, 2008 at 04:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Colleen, North Carolina

    I was diagnosed with invasive ductal breast cancer Stage 1 April 2008. Even as a stage 1 (No Lymph nodes) the type of Breast cancer I have (triple negative) warrented the consideration of chemotherapy. I was told I have a 30% recucurrence rate without chemo. If I take chemo it would reduce it to about 17%. I opted for a small lumpectomy and radiation only. The radiated area has a high level of pain on a regular basis (like a scraped muscle) though it feels better than during treatments and I still have residual tiredness. I have been done with radiation about 6 weeks. I was told radiation was easy, walk in the park, like a sunburn-no you don't need to adjust your work load. That was not true for me. I missed 90 days of work. I was able to attend yoga 3-4 times a week and that was a life saver.

    I am afraid of the cancer metastisising, but I am also afraid of the test for diagonosis (radiation from CT scans).

    I can only tell Nan that there is alot to be said about positive thinking. So keep that up, however-early detection, early detection, early detection. If caught early, some women do not need to take chemo.

    Ladies, your stories made me cry.

    September 30, 2008 at 08:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Teresa Windsperger

    November 2008 will be the two year mark for breast cancer diagnosis.I had a double mastectomy and 4 chemo treatments. The most important thing I've learned going through this has been that if I could survive all that, I can survive ANYTHING! I have a whole new sense of courage and strength. I go through most all things now quite boldly. I am woman, hear me roar!

    September 30, 2008 at 13:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Victoria

    this may sound silly but every night when i went to bed i imagined i had hundreds of little warriors surounding my cancer in my left breast and i told them to guard it and keep it in one spot until surgery, when i had surgery a golf size ball was removed, i still imagine them every night guarding and never leaving their post!

    September 30, 2008 at 15:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Sharon

    I had a hysteroscopy last week to find out whether or not I have uterine cancer and if so, what stage. I have all of the classic symptoms. It's very frightening but the stories here give me courage to face come what may. I get test reults next week. Thank you

    October 1, 2008 at 00:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Barbara Fry

    I was diagnosed with stage 2B clear cell carcinoma ovarian cancer at the beginning of December, 2003. I was fortunate. I actually found my cancer; I had been going to the gym faithfully and was quite fit. I felt my left ovary/tumor.

    I was also fortunate in that the 6 treatments of cytoxin and carboplatin did not cause any nausea; in fact, I gained weight during treatment. My hair thinned out, but I never lost all of it. My major side effect was fatigue. I slept a lot during treatment. Fatigue appears to be my long term side effect. I discovered that my fibromyalgia has been exacerbated. Others in my support group also suffer from fibromyalgia. I read an article on chronic pain; it appears that chemo therapy can destroy or impair axons of neurons.

    One thing I would like to see is more research into long-term effects of chemo therapy. Ten or fifteen years ago there were few if any cancer survivor support groups. This new community of people have new health needs.

    Yes, you are not the same person after having cancer. Physically you are changed, but more significantly, your values and outlook on life are changed forever. Gratitude becomes a lifestyle. I have a higher tolerance for my own and the shortcomings in others. Life is too precious and fragile to "sweat the small things."

    I appreciate all who have shared at this site. I am involved in a program in which ovarian cancer survivors share their stories with third year medical students. During the training for the program I am privileged to hear all their stories which are unique and full of courage.
    In the group we have 22, 14, and 12 year survivors as well as those newly diagnosed. We rejoice and encourage one another whenever we meet together.

    October 1, 2008 at 10:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Shirlyn Baker

    I, too, am a breast cancer survivor. I was diagnosed in 2000 and had a lumpectomy on the left breast. I had 4 chemo treatments and six weeks of radiation. I still worked full-time during the chemotherapy and my hair did fall out after the third treatment. I, too, had plenty of complications and side effects like lymphedema, thryoid problem, blood clots in my lungs and extreme fatigue. But, I would like to tell everyone, GOD is good and greatly to be praised!
    I learned to trust in God, live each day as though it were your last, never have regrets, be faithful, humble and tell your family you LOVE them. I wear a smile even when I don't feel good and say "Thank You" to all of the hospital nurses, doctors and technicians. My hair is back, longer than ever, I have to take Coumadin for the rest of my life and arthritis has set into my bones. But, still, I won't complain!!
    God Bless you all and keep the faith, the Lord will not place any more burdens than you can bear.
    The best lesson I learned about myself, is that I can perserver and my character is a shining example for others to follow.
    Shirlyn B

    October 1, 2008 at 12:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Jill

    I am a one-year Ovarian Cancer Survivor...I hit my one year anniversary on September 10!

    I was 36 years old and 5 months pregnant when diagnosed - my baby daughter and underwent 18 sessions of Chemo. I won't lie - Chemo was brutal - I was exhausted, nauseous, and suffered from some pretty severe neuropathy. I was so fearful of treatment but decided I needed to "turn it over" - instead of being afraid of Chemo, I needed to be afraid of the Cancer. I think that really helped get me through it.

    I was not prepared for how I felt during my last cycle of Chemo - I thought I would be happy but I was scared! I actually asked my Oncologist if we should go ahead and do another complete round. I felt "safe" during treatment but ending treatment took away my safety net - what if the Cancer was still there? It was a difficult time but I got through it.

    I tell people and I truly mean this - some parts of my Cancer Journey have been really great. I was very career-minded and driven but I came to realize that at the end of the day, work doesn't matter - my family and friends do. I am so much closer with my family now than before - I have an incredible support system! I also learned to live in the moment. I was always one to ask "what if" - I don't anymore - I just do it. It has given me such a different perspective and for that, I am really grateful. Sometimes I miss parts of my old life (I know I miss my long hair! :0) but that person no longer exists and that is okay because I think I think I like post-Cancer Jill a lot better!. I am just trying my best to live the best life I can.

    October 2, 2008 at 11:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Shirley

    Hi Karen – I know Laura Sivak. My sister and brother-in-law are Sharon and Mike Sivak. This would be Laura's mother and father in law.

    I am battling my second cancer. I was diagnosed 3 1/2 years ago with cervical cancer and had cleared my (2 years) with no problems and probably feeling at the age of 52 this best I have felt my entire life. I was working out and lifting weights, it was nice. As I had my routine pap in July this year with cervical cancer screening my pap was okay but every year I have a chest x-ray. They found a 2.6 cm mass on my right lung with four lymph nodes involved along my trachea. I have NEVER SMOKED. Cervical cancer can jump to the lungs but after going to several cancer centers and our huge medical facility here in Michigan (University of Michigan), their tumor boards have said it is entirely non related to the cervical cancer because of the placement. Most cervical cancers that move to the lung go to the bottom of the lung and mine is at the top.

    So, here I am again having radiation but also having chemo which I did not have before. I only have one more day of chemo next Tuesday (10-7-08) and then I finish 10-28-08 with the radiation.

    My hair is falling out at a rapid pace but at least it still keeps my head warm! I am glad that you are at the end of your journey.

    I wonder sometimes if everyone in the world had to experience cancer what a different world it would be.

    Troy, Laura, Andrew and Morgan are precious. Thanks for letting me read your blog.


    Shirley Lawler

    October 2, 2008 at 16:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Andrea

    Just surfing looking at different blogs. I had breast cancer at age 28. Lumpectomy with Radiation. Everything went great until this summer age now 54. Walking across the field to a Donna Summer;s Concert I became extremely short of breath. This lead to a doctors appt and a CT Scan which showed a collasped lung witha hugh plueral effusion.
    Diagnosed with ovarian cancer this time, finished first round of chemo, going for surgery within the week, then another round of chemo. Wish me luck

    October 12, 2008 at 22:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Madelynn

    Hi Andrea –

    I feel for you. You've been through so much already. I hope the surgery got everything, and you are recovering without a lot of pain. Hang in there with the chemos. I know they are tough.

    October 20, 2008 at 13:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. kathleen

    Thanks Karen for sharing your story and opening up this blog. I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer 3C in June 2007. I have just had the most surreal year of my life including 3 surgeries and 10 1/2 doses of chemo (not in that order). Although I was pronounced NED after a clear Second Look Surgery in June, I go every month for a blood test and it has been very hard to find my new "normal". I have not become "depressed" but find that I am just struggling to bring everything into focus.

    I have learned that life is precious, relationships are like treasures, there is meaning to the smallest things in life, I am a pretty tough cookie and there is hope.

    October 29, 2008 at 08:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Lily Bart

    Congratulations on being cancer-free!!! Your blog has been so enlightening as it gave me an idea of what goes through in the mind of a cancer patient and survivor.
    I recently lost my friend's mom, Elise, (whom I was also close to) to breast cancer. The news was so unexpected; I was in shock still am in many ways. Although I'm only 23 suddenly I feel death's imminent presence as if he were only outside my front door yet stands silently without knocking.
    I thank you so much for sharing your story with us all. It has helped me more than you can imagine. And I pray for your health, and hope that you will see your son getting married and look into the faces of your beautiful grandchildren. May God bless you and may you feel His presence in your life in every happiness as well as heartbreak.

    February 17, 2009 at 20:33 | Report abuse | Reply
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  21. Micheal Smith

    Great post! I like to learn, and I have learned something! Thanks you very much keep the good work!


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