It Happened at the Zoo —My Cancer Story

It was February 4th, 2002 when I learned I had ovarian cancer. Needless to say, I was shocked, but I was also surprised. I had a sister that was diagnosed with breast cancer at 39 years of age and succumbed at age 40, so I had already given in to the fact that the probability of being diagnosed with breast cancer had increased for me. Ovarian cancer never once crossed my mind.

It was extremely difficult for all of us to watch my sister’s health decline and to witness her death.

My sister’s illness was my family’s first real experience with cancer other than an aunt who had died of colon cancer when she was in her eighties. It was extremely difficult for all of us to watch my sister’s health decline and to witness her death. We were put into a situation where we had no choice but to learn about breast cancer and what we needed to do to protect ourselves and possibly prevent it from happening to us and our families.

Soon after my sister’s diagnosis, my two other sisters and I arranged for our first mammograms. We were high risk now for breast cancer and we were certain we did not want to share our sister’s experience. Each year, with our fingers crossed, we schedule that appointment. It was during one of those appointments that my life changed forever.

The exam started with the normal conversation including questions about how I felt, was there anything new or any changes, etc. I remember describing some signs and symptoms of what I thought were probably pre-menopausal (e.g. bloating, irregular periods, minor back ache, etc.), but nothing that I thought was abnormal. As a matter of fact, I felt pretty good.

It seemed like the moment my doctor began the internal exam she became aware of something that was not right. She could feel what she thought were two tumors. Before I knew it she was on the phone, scheduling a CAT scan, ultrasound, and an appointment with an oncologist. I was scared. Ten days later I was in surgery. My diagnosis — Stage 2B ovarian cancer. It was surreal. I can’t say I was in denial, I think it was more like disbelief.

After I recovered from the surgery, I began my six months of chemotherapy. I was fortunate enough to be able to work during this time, and sometimes my work as a manager of a seniors program at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland, OH took me out into the community. Naturally, I had lost all my hair and I was not comfortable wearing a wig so most of the time I wore a baseball hat. It was obvious that I was undergoing treatment, and this attracted others who were also undergoing treatment.

I had only been there a short time when I noticed a woman who was also wearing a baseball hat. Before I knew it we were sharing our cancer stories.

This is where the title of my story comes in. I was passing out information at a senior day at our local zoo. I had only been there a short time when I noticed a woman who was also wearing a baseball hat. Before I knew it we were sharing our cancer stories. She too had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and was having a tough time. Right before our conversation ended she asked me if I had ever heard of the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genetic mutations. I had not so she told me to look into it. I remember writing BRCA 1 on my hand in pen because I couldn’t find a piece of paper.

That afternoon I looked BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 up on the Internet. I immediately overloaded on the information, but what I learned was that breast, ovarian and colon cancer were genetically linked, and anyone who had the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 genetic mutation was at a very high risk for those cancers. I shared the information with my oncologist who, as I did, did not feel that I fit the profile for these mutations. However, because I have three children he felt I should be genetically profiled and if it was a fit, I should be tested. I soon learned I fit the profile and was tested. I was BRCA 1 positive.

Because of my high-risk rate for breast cancer, I decided that I would opt for a bilateral mastectomy which was performed almost a year to the date of my ovarian cancer surgery. It was an easy decision for me to make. I knew I didn’t want to wait to see if I would get breast cancer, I was absolutely certain I didn’t want to go through chemo again and most importantly, I had things to do. I didn’t want to be inconvenienced with breast cancer and I wanted to be around for my children and grandchildren.

I felt fortunate that I had had these options but my real concern had to be addressed. I knew that because I was BRCA 1 positive, my children would have a 50% chance of also inheriting the mutation. I have two daughters and a son who were at risk, and my oldest daughter was already in her early thirties.

Within the next year we had learned that both my daughters tested positive for the BRCA 1 genetic mutation. My oldest daughter has three children of her own so she decided to have a hysterectomy and oophorectomy about six months ago. Her bilateral mastectomy is scheduled for December 2nd of this year. My younger daughter is moving on with her life and knows that she has a few years before she has to make some of the same decisions.

My cancer experience...has been more positive than negative.

I always tell people who ask me about my cancer experience that it has been more positive than negative. I have learned so much about the disease, treatments and most importantly, survival. I am so grateful to the lady in the baseball hat that I met at the zoo that day.

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