The ghosts of ovarian cancer

July 30, 2013
Writer Donna Trussell and Dr. Steve Buie at her 10-year checkup in 2011, a decade after her ovarian cancer diagnosis.

A lot has happened in the 12 years since my diagnosis. Now I know more about ovarian cancer, and the information is not exactly comforting.

In these dozen years I’ve buried new friends, which wasn’t surprising, since they had cancer too. I’ve also buried old friends, which was shocking. “You beat me to hospice,” I said to one. “How’d that happen?”

I have not forgotten those left behind. I once heard Tim O’Brien read a short story about a dead sister. Her “ghost” was sad and lonely. She said she felt like a book on a library shelf that no one ever checks out. But I always remember my friends who died. I don’t know when I’ll be joining them.

Before leaving for my most recent annual check-up, I stacked books to read — essays on outcasts and writers, a children’s story, a book on grizzly bear attacks. But when it was time to leave for the clinic, I settled on “Doo Wop Motels: Architectural Treasures of the Wildwoods.” That ought to distract me.

I couldn’t help but notice that my doctor looked older. But then, that was the plan — for us to grow old together. He’s been my doctor for 25 years. He found my cancer. He saved my life.

My exam started with good news, which continued the next day, when blood test results rolled in. Even the dreaded CA-125 blood test (a marker for ovarian cancer) came back normal. I was in the clear.

But a day later, another test came back. There was blood, a red flag for cancer.

I’ve had a good, long remission, which should make me more secure, but it doesn’t. There’s nothing magic about five years of survival, or even 10. I knew my ovarian cancer could still recur. I knew the toxic treatments I got could cause a brand new cancer. So could the genetic predisposition that led to my first cancer.

An acquaintance once asked me how I felt about cancer, now that it’s “all over,” now that I know I was destined to survive. Aren’t I glad it happened? Didn’t I learn something? Didn’t good things come out of cancer?

Let’s see…scars, missing body parts, permanent damage to nerves, lowered cognitive ability, fear that never really goes away. So, no.

How did a debilitating, life-threatening disease become a journey, an adventure, a mystical calling? I suggest we demote cancer to what it really is: proof of our human frailty. Survivors go on with their lives despite cancer, not because of it.

My followup test to my followup test is scheduled now. My doctor specified it should happen “as soon as possible.” Naturally, after cancer every phrase and gesture gets parsed for secret meaning.

Twelve years ago I was diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer. My chance of surviving five years was 30 percent, or even less due to my unusually aggressive cell type. Unlike cervical and breast cancer, ovarian cancer has no screening test. My only symptoms were gas, bloating and a low-grade fever.

Amid all the public hoopla about other cancers, this year ovarian cancer will quietly kill about 14,000 American women and 22,000 will be diagnosed. Do the math.

I tell myself that just because I beat the formidable odds against me 12 years ago does not mean that the odds are now in cancer’s favor. Many benign conditions can cause bleeding.

“Let’s think positive,” the nurse said. “Oh yes,” I said, “because that works so well.” My sarcasm made us both laugh.

When I go in for more tests on Wednesday, I will take with me the spirits of both the living and the dead.

I feel like a fighter pilot who’s ordered back to the sky. Like I’ve survived many missions, somehow returning to base, and remembering the pilots who did not. My luck can’t hold forever. If a fighter pilot survived, the war ended and the pilot went home. But with cancer, you never really go home.

Donna Trussell is a Texas-born writer living in Kansas City.

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