I am one of those people who probably tells more than they should. If I were a celebrity the tabloids would love me. I can be brutally honest, and I don’t care much what others think of how I live my life.
Last week something happened to me, something you might consider a “life changing event.” I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
This is my story. It’s long, so I’ll be telling it in segments. And stay tuned. Despite the inevitable ending (the same ending you will have one day as well, my friend), I plan on being around for a long time:
5/29/13, Wednesday: THE BEGINNING
I turned over in bed and felt a sharp twinge of pain in my abdomen. It was Tuesday morning. It was as simple as that.
I got up, ate an early lunch, and felt nothing the rest of the day.
The next morning the pain was back, only worse. I could barely walk to the bathroom. I had to sit on the bed while I brushed my teeth. It felt suspiciously similar to the duodenal diverticulitis I’d had twice in the past seven years, with the last episode just a year ago, only this time it was in a different location and I felt nauseous. I knew the drill: CT scan in the emergency room and antibiotics with lots of bed rest at home.
I called my doctor’s office, and they said they would fit me in. I took a quick shower and woke up my son and his girlfriend. The pain was so intense that I knew there was no way I would be able to drive myself.
In the back of my mind, I wondered if there was any possibility of this being related to some annoyingly odd issues I had been having. For the past four months I had been telling anyone who would listen, including my doctor and dermatologist, that something was out of whack with my hormones. I had been experiencing extremely oily skin, unrelenting acne, and hair loss. In addition, the last two months it dawned on me one day that I often felt full after three bites and that I was going to the bathroom a lot more frequently than normal.
My doctor said it was almost certainly related to too much estrogen, and advised I stop taking the estrogen patch he had prescribed six months earlier for some extreme menopausal symptoms I had been experiencing (mainly hot flashes and depression). The dermatologist told me acne was essentially incurable, then rattled off a long list of possible treatments, and we decided on a benzoyl peroxide facial wash, Pan Oxyl, a thin layer of Finacea each night (which the box says is for rosacea, something the dermatologist never mentioned), and some type of pill to be taken that might kick the acne out of my system. I discovered at the drugstore that this pill was not covered by my insurance and would cost $1,000 out of pocket for 30 pills! Um, no. I was frustrated. I wanted to know why this was happening, not just what to do about it.
The benzoyl peroxide was harsh at first, but I did notice results, and the Finacea also seemed to make a difference. I continued to have breakouts, and they were the deep cystic kind of zits, but repeated dabbing with some Neutrogena Fight and Fade gel usually helped them heal quicker. Despite washing my face sometimes three times a day, every morning there would be a new crop of zits on my chin or along my hairline.
Even more distressing was the hair loss. I have always had very thick, fine-textured hair, so there was plenty of hair to spare before the hair loss would become noticeable. Also, I could wash my hair in the morning and it would be greasy by the end of the day. I felt like I was 14 again. I tried shampoo after shampoo, looking for something that would keep it from getting greasy so quickly, but without drying out the ends.
I was frustrated and felt mildly unsettled after seeing my doctor and dermatologist, as if my concerns were somehow not being taken seriously. Both doctors are excellent, but it all just played into my general unsettling sense of becoming more invisible to society the older I get. Of course acne is not life threatening, but I had just turned 53, dammit, and had already paid my dues years ago on that front! The hair loss was even more distressing, and I had visions of myself turning overnight into an old, hunched over, white haired crone with hair so thin you could see through to the scalp. I had a cane and was chasing kids and dogs off my lawn. I might even be missing a few teeth.
One day, while playing Super Sleuth on the internet to find a reason and solution for the acne, I ran across a comment by someone who said her sister had suddenly begun having horrible acne in her 40’s, went to the gynecologist for a regular check-up, and was told “after one look” that she had ovarian cysts. That one comment was enough to peak my interest enough to start reading about ovarian cysts and cancer.
I did some digging and discovered ovarian cysts can indeed cause some of the same symptoms I had been experiencing, but there was very little real info to be found. Most sites didn’t even mention acne or hair loss in conjunction with ovarian cysts. If this one comment was legit, it was the first time I had heard anyone make that connection. And if it truly was a possibility, I knew it could be a player in the new pain in my lower left abdomen.
The doctor’s office was thankfully not very crowded. The only other person waiting was a fabulous looking 78 year old woman with thyroid cancer. She shook her head slowly, smiled, and told me, “These doctors just take your money and create new symptoms to keep you coming back. It’s all about making money.” Then she talked about the coming rapture and how she’s “seen it all coming” since she was a little girl in church. I steered the discussion towards politics and Obama, and we both agreed on how disappointed we had become in him. I mean, how DOES one deflect talk of the rapture in a doctor’s office waiting room? And I loved my doctor and didn’t agree that he just wanted my money.
In the meantime, I half sat/half reclined and felt nauseous. All of the pain was centralized in one location, but it affected my entire abdomen. All I really wanted to do was find a bed.
After they called me back and weighed me, I had the sudden urge to vomit. I ran to the bathroom and made it just in time. Since I hadn’t eaten anything all day, it wasn’t bad. But I still felt nauseous.
My doctor’s initial conclusion was that it was probably diverticulitis, only this time in the colon where most people have it. When I asked about the possibility of an ovarian cyst, he admitted that could also be the cause of the pain. By this time the pain was severe.
He recommended I check myself into the ER for a CT scan. He also thought my pain was bad enough that they would want to admit me into the hospital, but I had no intention of letting that happen.
Diverticulitis is fairly common, but duodenal diverticulitis is not. The first time it appeared it caused a five day stay in the hospital. The head of surgery had no idea what the large mass on my duodenum was, only that it was a large mass and it was causing an infection. He didn’t want to operate because of its size and the possibility of bursting, but he knew that it wasn’t cancer. I stayed hooked up to an IV with all food and and liquids delivered intravenously for the entire five day stay. I had all kinds of GI tests run after the mass healed but no one could figure out exactly what “it” had been.
When it happened again last year, six years after the first time, the ER staff took another CT scan and compared it with the one from six years ago, which showed the lesion in exactly the same spot. A doctor young enough to be my daughter made an immediate diagnosis of duodenal diverticulitis, which is apparently rare enough to explain why no one figured it out the first time. I was sent home with a round of antibiotics and was up and running again within ten days.
So it was off to the emergency room again, just over a year since the last visit. My doctor is kind and caring, but I was embarrassed when he insisted on one of his nurses wheeling me out to the car in a wheelchair. I hate being fussed over and drawing attention to myself. I run marathons! I’m tough! I could do this on my own!
To be continued . . .