Sometimes, Ovarian Cancer Can Be a Good Thing

stirrups“I’m feeling a little something,” says the nurse.  A little something?  What kind of little something?  I’m lying on my back, with my heels hooked into those horrible stirrups that seem always to accompany horrible moments in life, feeling about as dignified as a tabloid queen caught on camera without her underwear.  This is probably because I’m not actually wearing any underwear and instead have a vaginal speculum shoved between my legs.

“There’s an abnormality” the nurse continues.  “On your right ovary.”

On my ovary?  The moment I realize that my reproductive organs are in danger, I begin to panic, not because I’m in any great rush to get pregnant (perish the thought!) but because my grandmother died of ovarian cancer.

“It may be nothing,” I hear the nurse say, “but given the history of cancer in your family you’ll need a transvaginal ultrasound.”

It is at this point that I stop breathing.  Ultrasounds are for mothers-to-be or people who have something seriously wrong with them, not healthy soon-to-be 26 year-olds (especially as 26 is the cut off for remaining on your parents’ health insurance here in the US).  And what the hell does “transvaginal” even mean?  It sounds like the sort of the word the detectives toss around when they’re investigating crime scenes on shows like CSI or Law and Order—you know, shows that deal with dead people.

To make matters even worse, a dear friend of mine had a cancer scare of her own recently.  Like me, she’s in her twenties and unable to afford decent health insurance.  We had a lengthy conversation while she was waiting for her test results, the foci of which were:

1)      What if I can’t have children?

2)      What if I lose my hair?

3)      How am I going to pay for this?

I had tried to be as supportive as I could—especially with regards to chemotherapy and the potential for hair loss; trivial though this may sound, this particular friend of mine has gorgeous hair— but really, I had no idea what she was going through.

As I crumble my paper gown and toss it into the trash at the end of my examination, however, I suddenly understand exactly how she felt.

I feel sick.

I feel terrified and angry and completely bewildered.  How am I going to pay for this?  What about my hair?  What about my ability to eventually conceive children and… I don’t know… live to see my 30th birthday?

It’s not fair.  And it’s my brother’s birthday so I can’t even tell my parents because I know my mom will freak out and I don’t want to ruin what’s supposed to be a celebration—especially as it’s not my celebration to ruin.

My first instinct, aside from calling my mom, is to call my friend who’s just been through this, but she’s out of the country.  My second instinct is to call Date #7, because who better to call when the sidewalk seems to buckle beneath you than the man who can stop the world from spinning with a single kiss?  He’ll tell me everything’s going to be alright.  But what if he doesn’t?  He’s not my boyfriend.  I don’t want to burden him with the news or my need for consolation.  Not yet.

So I call the scary-sounding diagnostic center in North Philly instead.  With my 26th birthday looming, I need to get this taken care of as soon as possible because the ultrasound—not to mention whatever treatments I’ll need as a result—will cost an arm and a leg once I’m off my parents’ health insurance.

Of course, the secretary won’t even schedule an appointment without my insurance information upfront and I’ve forgotten my wallet so I can’t give it to her.

On the verge of tears, I stumble into the nearest coffee shop and order an iced chai.  I need caffeine.  I need to think.  I also need $4.50 cents to pay for my drink and of course it’s not until after I place my order that I remember having accidentally left my wallet at home.

Now I really feel like sh*t.

“I’m so sorry!” I stammer.  I’m at one of my favorite coffee shops and the barista has already made my drink.  I dig through every pocket of my bag in the hopes of finding a forgotten bill somewhere but the line is building behind me and suddenly I’m that girl: the girl who orders a drink she can’t pay for.

But the barista just smiles.  “Take it, no sense wasting it.”

And she’s right.  Gratefully I accept the drink and promise to leave a very big tip the next time I stop by.

But this doesn’t solve the problem of the scan, the “abnormality” on my ovary or the fact that it’s my brother’s birthday and I’m determined to keep my chin up for his sake.  I call the diagnostic center again when I get home, schedule an appointment for the following day and lose myself to the Richter tradition of drunk-mini golf for the duration of the evening.

When I wake up the next morning, I put on one of my prettiest summer dresses—one of the Indian ones I got at Camden Market—and the platform espadrilles I bought on the eve of Date #7’s arrival back in June.  I’ve been researching ovarian cancer on the internet and have decided that if I’m going out, I’m going to go out in style.  I throw a new paperback into my pocketbook and head up to North Philly, alone and completely terrified but surprisingly composed because really, there’s nothing I can do about any of this.  It’s out of my hands.

The transvaginal ultrasound takes forever.  It’s dark and the technician says nothing as she probes; the only sound is that of the keyboard as she clicks and clicks and clicks and I’m lying there thinking, “What the f*ck are you typing?  What the f*ck are you seeing and when the f*ck are you going to take this godforsaken ‘wand’ out of me?”

“We’ll fax the results to your doctor,” she tells me, her tone indicating nothing—absolutely nothing—either way.  I notice a picture of a little girl in a dance recital costume tacked about her desk and my eyes well up again.  What if I never have a daughter?

I pour myself a glass of water before leaving the diagnostic center and turn the radio on the minute I reach my car.  I’m hoping for something totally ridiculous—preferably Justin Timberlake or Usher so I can get my groove on and make it home without succumbing to a total meltdown on the interstate—but instead I get “If I Die Young” by The Band Perry.

For those of you not up on your sh*tty, sappy country music, it begins like this:

If I die young, bury me in satin
Lay me down on a, bed of roses
Sink me in the river, at dawn
Send me away with the words of a love song

Then, in case you’re not sufficiently suicidal at this point, it continues:

Lord make me a rainbow, I’ll shine down on my mother
She’ll know I’m safe with you when she stands under my colors, oh and
Life ain’t always what you think it ought to be, no
Ain’t even grey, but she buries her baby

Now I wish I could say that I don’t put a lot of stock into “coincidences” of the superstitious variety but I do.  Before I know it, I’m making a mental checklist of all of my unfinished manuscripts, all of my unrealized dreams, and I realize I’ll have to reorganize my files and leave my flash drives where my mom will be able to find them, this way she can sort everything out when I’m gone…

Then I wonder if Date #7 will come to my funeral and whether or not he’ll bring a date, and whether or not my brother will have a girlfriend by then because I’d really like for him not to be alone, and what my mother will wear, and what my dad will wear and what I will wear although of course this last one won’t really matter now, will it?

But this is not the way my life is meant to turn out.  No fucking way.

I slam my first into the radio with a succession of curse words.  It’s one thing to die of ovarian cancer; it’s another to die in a car accident on the interstate because you’re listening to crappy country music and bawling your eyes out, especially when the paperback you’ve got in my pocketbook is terrible and you know you can do better.

So I pull myself together, drive home and barricade myself in my room with my journal.  I stare out the window and I let the tears fall and then I think, “Okay, enough of this bullshit.  Are you happy?  If you had one year left to live, or maybe two or three or perhaps only six months, would you want to continue this life?  Are you doing what you love?  Will you die without regrets?”

Then came the most frightening realization of all: the answer to each and every one of these questions was no.

No.

No, I am not happy—at least not as happy as I could be.  I am doing what I love but I’m also ignoring several of the things I love most in this world because the pursuit of these things requires more courage than I currently possess.

Furthermore, I will, in fact, regret a great number of things if I were to go the way of the Band Perry song and I realized, as an afterthought, that if I had only a few years left to do everything I feel I’m meant to do, I’d throw my academic aspirations out the window.  No more conferences.  No PhD, and even though I feel like I’d disappoint a great number of people with such a decision, I would not be one of them.

A few days ago, I found out that I’m fine.  The “abnormality” was just a benign collection of follicles and not ovarian cancer—thank God.  I won’t lose my hair, I won’t die young and I’ll be able to have children if ever I reach a point in the maturation process where the loss of my hair is not my biggest concern.

It took a while for me to decide whether or not I should share this story.  Eventually I told my parents and to my great surprise and relief, they both said, “Is that all?  We thought maybe you’d gotten another rejection letter.”  (Evidently, I hadn’t been as composed as I’d thought and they know me better than I know my self.)

Nonetheless, the days during which I had to wait for the results of the ultrasound sucked.  I couldn’t write, I couldn’t focus and I couldn’t help but feel as though I was going through some sort of intense, life-changing therapy session, probably because I was.

So I’m sharing this story so that you too can reap the benefits of the cancer-scare-reevaluation-of-your-life-and-priorities-process without actually having to go through the scare yourself.

Are you happy?

If you’re reading this at work, is it work that you love (or at least work that enables you to do the things you love) or are you reading this to distract you from something you hate, counting down the minutes until 5:00pm?

Finally, if you were to die tomorrow or next year or even three years from now, would you feel as though you’d lived your life to the fullest?

Quakers have a very simple expression that I’m planning to paint onto my bathroom mirror as soon as I finish this post: Live adventurously.

So if you’ve answered “no” to any of the above, I’d advise you to start contemplating your mortality.  Feel free to get as creative and melodramatic as you need for the idea of an imminent death to sink in (you can play “Say What You Need To Say” by John Mayer in the background if you need a little help, or the notorious “If I Die Young”) and get your shit together because not everyone is lucky enough to go through a cancer scare at 25 and live to tell.

(PS: I apologize if this post offends anyone who has struggled with and/or lost a loved one to cancer.  I always try to inject a bit of humor into my writing, even when it may seem inappropriate, so please take this post in the spirit it was intended and know that my heart goes out to you.)

31 Responses to “Sometimes, Ovarian Cancer Can Be a Good Thing”

  1. Jennifer

    You should have called me!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! When I log on my computer later I’ll tell you a story about my reproductive system or current lack there of. I’ve been through it. And I’m a nurse damn it! I can always help. Glad you are okay though. Love you!

    Reply
    • Kat Richter

      Thanks, Jenn 🙂 I totally owe you a call anyway– I was determined to get up to Kingston sometime this summer to go through the family history things you’ve been working on and here we are halfway through August and I don’t have another free weekend till after Labor Day 😦 But soon– we’ll have to make it happen this fall!

      Reply
  2. Katie

    Wow. I’m so glad you’re okay, and what a great post this is. I discovered your blog after you added me on 20sb, and you’re turning out to be one of my favorite bloggers. So please don’t die! And thanks for the reminder that we’re young but not invincible and need to live our lives with that knowledge.

    Reply
    • Kat Richter

      Thanks, Katie and you’re quite welcome! I was a bit nervous about posting this one because it seems ever MORE personal than my love life somehow, but I’m glad you liked it.

      Reply
  3. Philly Tap Teaser

    Living in the moment is something I try to do in a mindful way. It’s certainly not easy to do. I always want to plan, plan, plan.

    Your post made me realize that the goals I had in my 20s are so different than the ones I have now in my 30s. Interestingly, my goals now are less about self-directed accomplishments and more about being the best person I can be to others. Maybe it’s because I’m a little older and I see now that relationships are the only things that matter.

    Reply
    • Kat Richter

      Hmmm… plan, plan, plan, eh? I wouldn’t know anything about that! 🙂 But you’re right: ultimately its not about what you do but how you do it. Sept 8th aside, of course, lol! See you soon– I’ve been going through all of my crazy notes from grad school for our “skit…” You are going to CRACK UP when I show you “Tap Dancing At a Glance” from 1932.

      Reply
  4. Brazilian

    You scared the you-know-what out of me. Half way through I almost stopped reading and called you, then I realized you wouldn’t be writing it if it didn’t end well. At least not before calling the Brazilian family. Finding out something like this on your blog would have killed me.
    GLAD you are OK. We love you!!!!

    Reply
    • Kat Richter

      Sorry, B! I should have put a disclaimer at the top but you’re right: I DO prefer happy endings and the entire “Brazilian” clan is definitely on my phone call list for anything truly life changing– good, bar or otherwise 🙂 Can’t wait to see you all next month!

      Reply
  5. Laurie Block Spigel

    I am unbelievably happy because I spend most of my time doing what I truly love. This wasn’t true for most of my life, so I can’t say that I have no regrets. But I can say that my heart sings when I go to work, and the older I get, the younger I feel. If I’m to be honest, I realize that I just wasn’t ready for all this before it came to me. First I had to give myself over to the influences of my family and my children. And then, when the time came, I had to let go of all that, which was very hard. Now I’m getting ready to leave for Australia, where I will be teaching and having a blast! I hope I don’t miss your wonderful blog while I’m gone. Why do I read it? Not to while away the time, and not because I have extra to spare (I’m always catching up days late). I do it for the same reason I do everything. I do it for love. I love your blog!

    Reply
    • Kat Richter

      Thank you, Laurie 🙂 I always love reading your comments– can’t believe you’re off to Australia! I hope you have a wonderful, wonderful time and will look forward to hearing the stories.

      Reply
  6. Landlord

    The landlord knew in her heart that you were going to be okay, because I didn’t panic when you told me, call it sixth sense? Although this entry did bring me to tears, even though I knew the outcome, reading your thoughts did me in~

    Reply
  7. Kate

    Thanks for sharing such a personal story! And I’m glad you’re okay. I’ve had a similar scare, so I know how terrifying and isolating it can feel.
    On top of the reality-check of a scare like that, it’s also a good reminder to get regularly checked out by a doctor. I have a long family history of cancer in men and women, so going to the doctor is a must! Taking care of yourself will enable you to continue to live a long and healthier life!
    “Live adventurously”– I love it! I hope to apply it more to my life, because I’m definitely reading your blog to count down the minutes until 5…

    Reply
  8. Katie

    These are questions I contemplated a lot as I watched the minutes tick by during my last gray cubicle 9-5. And since, for some reason, I couldn’t come up with any other viable options, I quit and moved to Costa Rica for 2 months without any type of plan. It was an amazing experience, but now I make less than half of what I made before and I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up, so I’m not positive I’d recommend that dramatic route, either. 😉

    I’m glad you’re okay!

    Reply
  9. stevesw

    Not sure if ‘great post Kat’ is an appropriate way to describe how articulated you shared such a personal, frightening experience for our benefit, but you did. Thank you. I understand your situation, been there. OK, yes, I’m a guy, so it was not ovarian; my experience started with “You prostrate is enlarged.” I thank the Lord that it was just enlarged for no special reason other than to scare the %$*&^&^ out of me and help the doctor make his car payments. As much as I like country music, you sure hit the wrong song; but then, that’s why depressed people are warned not to listen to country.

    Reply
  10. Baby steps « aka Gringita

    […] for the photography course I’d been noodling on. I had been of mixed feelings about it, but Kat’s recent scare did get me thinking about regrets, and avoiding them where possible. This on top of GotC’s […]

    Reply
  11. mydatingprescription

    I’m really glad to hear everything is ok. I had a similar scare with my left breast a few years ago. The not knowing what is wrong is the hardest part.

    AND, I hate that f$%^ing song! If you’re not suicidal at the when the song starts, by the end you practically want to go dip you feet in concrete and sink yourself in a river. Radio stations seriously need to stop playing it so much.

    Reply
  12. The prof

    Having been there, I know the feeling, but it is interesting how some of the “decisions” you make then, go out of the window as life moves on. This was beautifully written Kat and extremely moving.

    Reply
  13. bloglvr

    Oh My Word! You always make me laugh, and now you reduced me to tears. You are a hell of a writer, my friend! soooooo glad you are OK!

    Reply
  14. Live Adventurously « Slow Down, Son

    […] Over at Kat’s blog, something happened.  She has a way with words.  With storytelling.  I knew everything would turn out to be okay, but the point she was trying to convey was conveyed.  And I’m hoping to pass that along to you. […]

    Reply
  15. Catherine

    I’m so happy you are okay! This is a great reminder though. I’ve had a few of those scary moments myself, personally, but also when my dad was really sick. Life is too short to always be waiting, to always be working toward something, to always be putting real life on hold for something in the future. Hard work has its purpose, and you should always be looking toward the future, but you have to make sure you live well and are happy today. Great post 🙂

    Reply
  16. sarahnsh

    Yeah, you scared the Bejesus out of me too, but I’m glad you’re okay! I got diagnosed with Ovarian Cysts when I was around 15-16 years old and when they told my mom about the cyst she freaked out… and she’s a nurse. Luckily, I think it went away, but sometimes you need a shake-up to make you appreciate the little things in life or to give you a push into a new life. Personally for me I can say yes to loving what I do, and while I may want to travel more (who wouldn’t??) I’ll keep on doing my career until it finally messes up my body too much.

    Reply
  17. Tile Tramp

    I found your blog today and have been completely hooked…been reading it all day (yes, I hate my job but it does allow me to do the things I love). This post really hit home for me though. My mother was diagnosed with advanced stage 4 ovarian cancer in January.

    While obviously not as young as you, she is certainly much too young to be facing death. A lot of these same questions ran through my head since I had previously kind of thought she was invincible…not like a superhero, but in the way that you never really think about what your life would look like without your mother.

    It brought mortality to a very real place in my life for a while, and it definitely made me re-evaluate a lot of the ways I was living my life. Your post was so well-written and inspiring. I hope others can be inspired to take a hard look at their lives without having to face traumatic events of their own! I’m SO glad that you don’t have to face that particular horror.

    Oh and my mom had a full recovery 🙂

    Reply
    • Kat Richter

      Thanks for stopping by! And I’m very glad to hear your mom experienced a full recovery 🙂 Health scares suck but sometimes they do have a bit of a silver lining…

      Reply
  18. Mary Stewart

    I just saw your post and please consider me who is a fan of health awareness articles. I didn’t wish to have that, i just remembered my aunt. She was suffering this kind of ovarian cysts that leads to myoma. She deals with heavy bleeding, that i couldn’t imagine. But then, i’m so grateful now that she’s well from it through surgery. Thank you for posting and all the best for you.

    Reply

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