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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?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


September 19th, 2008
09:33 AM ET

Ovarian cancer: positive thinking

September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a disease that touches more than 20,000 women each year, including some of CNN’s own. Karen Bonsignore, executive producer of CNN Entertainment News, got her diagnosis in May. Every Friday this month, she’ll share parts of her personal journey.

By Karen Bonsignore
Executive Producer, CNN Entertainment News

When you have cancer, your well-meaning family and friends are likely to tell you that in order to keep the disease at bay you need to think positively. To help my mind from straying, I was given an assortment of life-affirming gifts: prayer beads blessed by the Dalai Lama, a St. Christopher medal, bracelets and necklaces with charms for good health, books and meditations. I even bought a few for myself.

While I was still in the hospital recovering from surgery I imagined that there was an intricate community that lived inside me. There were seamless, titanium walls that lined the inside of my body. I chose dozens of tiny people to live there including architects and engineers, chefs who specialized in preparing only the healthiest and most nutritious foods, physical trainers, Olympic weightlifters, and NFL linebackers who were responsible for ensuring that the walls held up. Together they promised not to let any rogue cancer cells in. Ever.

When I returned home from the hospital I put up a Post-It note on my bathroom mirror that read:

May 27, 2008
Today I am CANCER FREE

Beneath those words I counted each day post surgery. I thought that I would count to 365, at which time I would celebrate a year of being cancer free. I was vigilant about marking the days until one Thursday I simply forgot. By the time I realized that I’d stopped, I’d lost count altogether. I didn’t need to look back to see how far I’d come; I knew very well what I’d been through and I only wanted to face forward.

I’m a firm believer in the mind-body connection but I’m here to tell you that it’s nearly impossible to think positively when your bones hurt, your muscles ache, you’re nauseated and you’re so exhausted you can barely move. In fact, some people believe that if they don’t think positively all of the time, they will somehow cause their cancer to return. For me, dark thoughts are inevitable, and when they surface I allow them to enter, I feel them and acknowledge whatever fear comes to pass, and then I ask them to leave. On one particularly difficult day I asked my son, Cody, how I was supposed to remain positive when I felt so awful? He answered simply: I guess you just have to believe that tomorrow will be a better day. And so I do.

I believe that tomorrow will be a better day. I believe that I am strong. I believe that I’m meant to do more here on this Earth. I believe that I will be cured. I believe that I will live.

How has positive thinking affected you?

Editor’s Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


September 12th, 2008
01:06 PM ET

Ovarian cancer: flipping my wig

September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a disease that touches more than 20,000 women each year, including some of CNN’s own. Karen Bonsignore, executive producer of CNN Entertainment News, got her diagnosis in May. Every Friday this month, she’ll share parts of her personal journey.

By Karen Bonsignore
Executive Producer, CNN Entertainment News

I dislike my wig. It’s not that it doesn’t look good on me; on the contrary, it looks very much like my own hair. It’s just that it’s NOT my hair and it’s a constant reminder that I’m bald. When I wear it I feel dishonest, as if I’m trying to deceive people into believing that I actually have hair. Those who know me know that it’s a wig, and those who don’t know me rarely take notice at all. Instead I prefer to wear scarves or hats, which clearly state “I had cancer. I’m being treated and I’m bald.”

Everyone knows that hair loss is one of the main side effects of chemotherapy. It’s expected. One of the things doctors sometimes forget to tell their patients is that it hurts when your hair falls out. A friend of mine who is a breast cancer survivor compared it to the uncomfortable feeling you have when, after wearing your hair in a certain style for many years, you decide to part your hair a different way. It even hurts to sleep on it. Most all of the hair on your body falls out due to the drugs, even your nose hair. Who knew?

What surprised me most about losing my hair was how emotional I was about it. About two weeks after my first chemo treatment my hair started to fall out. Strands came out on my pillow, on my towel after showering and in my hands. I decided that I didn’t want to watch it fall out each day so I made an appointment to have it cut about an inch and a half from my scalp. While I sat in the chair at the salon I was taken aback when my chest began to clench and then tears streamed down my face and I had absolutely no idea why. I wasn’t sad about cutting my hair. In fact I’ve had relatively short hair most of my adult life. I’ve even had it “spiked” when it was in fashion. No, it was as if at that moment I’d been smacked hard with the reality that I actually had cancer and now I was really “in it.” It wasn’t simply that my hair was falling out; it was the terrible truth that my hair was falling out as a result of having ovarian cancer. I didn’t feel sick before I went into the hospital to remove what my doctors thought were benign cysts and I didn’t feel sick that day. I think that’s what made accepting cancer all the more difficult for me. There was no question now that I had it, they had “gotten it all,” and I was darn lucky.  

Before my second treatment three weeks later I’d cut my hair twice more: first to a #1 buzz cut, and then my son shaved my head bald. By that time I was resigned to the fact that this was part of the cancer package. There was no more denial. I wanted to live and I had no choice but to walk through it until I came out the other side.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


September 5th, 2008
10:11 AM ET

Ovarian cancer: battling the uninvited guest

September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a disease that touches more than 20,000 women each year, including some of CNN’s own. Karen Bonsignore, executive producer of CNN Entertainment News, got her diagnosis in May. Every Friday this month, she’ll share parts of her personal journey.

By Karen Bonsignore
Executive Producer, CNN Entertainment News

My cancer was found accidentally. I was one of the lucky ones. It was while being treated for a blood disorder that I learned that I had cysts on both of my ovaries. After numerous tests and scans, my doctors believed that they were benign but nevertheless needed to be removed. I went into the hospital in late May believing that I was cancer-free. Since I was past my child-bearing years, I planned to have a hysterectomy as a precaution. I knew, however, that nothing was 100 percent certain until the doctors actually took a look.

ALT TEXT

Karen Bonsignore before and after chemotherapy

My surgeon came to my bedside the night following my surgery and asked if anyone had talked to me yet. My family and friends knew what had been found during my surgery but felt the news was better coming from him. When the doctor took my hand, the world stopped. I’d never felt such sheer terror as in the moment before he spoke. I had ovarian cancer, he said gently. I gasped, and in the second before he spoke again, I panicked: I knew that most ovarian cancer is found in advanced stages, when the chance of long-term survival is much less. He continued: My cancer was stage IIc: present in both ovaries, on the pelvic wall, and in the abdominal fluid, but not detected in my lymph nodes. My survival chances were considerably better than if found later. I was so relieved, so incredibly grateful, and I prayed incessantly for several days that I would be healthy.

In the weeks after my surgery it was difficult for me to accept the diagnosis. In a matter of a few hours I had gone from believing I was cancer free, to having cancer and then having it all removed. A cancer diagnosis was inconceivable to me. I struggled to understand what part in my life it played. I didn’t even know how to refer to it: Was it correct to say “I have cancer” or “I had cancer”? How did I suddenly become a cancer survivor?

Cancer for me was like hosting an uninvited guest who has overstayed his welcome the moment he arrived. Although intellectually I knew that there are no guarantees, it was the first time I ever questioned whether I’d live to see my son get married or my grandchildren be born. The presence of cancer brought so many uncertainties to bear: Would I ever be truly healthy again? Would I be able to work? How else would my life change? I was at the beginning of the process and I was looking down a very long road to an undetermined destination.

Have you fought ovarian cancer? What did you learn from it?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


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About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.

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