Photographs by Ricky Carioti / The Washington Post
When Djohariah Singer was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer two years ago, she fully expected to beat the disease — despite long odds.
But the pandemic hit just a few months after her first surgery, to remove her reproductive organs. The cancer had spread throughout her body, complicating Singer’s battle to stay alive even as she endured debilitating chemo and further surgeries. Since the beginning of the pandemic, she has sheltered in place with her partner and teenage daughter at their home in Middletown, Md., venturing out only for her medical appointments and emergencies.
Singer, 52, has been fighting a two-front battle for two years — trying to heal her body from the ravages of cancer and outlast the pandemic, which shows no sign of abating. But she says she has come to see her fight more as a dance than a war.
“I see myself fighting in a different way,” she said. “My life isn’t about beating cancer, my life is going to be how do I live with cancer. And the more I can learn to dance with this, the more gracefully I dance with it, the longer I will live.”
Singer was preparing to teach her kindergarten art class in Hagerstown one day in late 2019 when her cellphone buzzed. It was bloodwork results from her doctor. She had been suffering from stomach and groin pain for nearly a month, but doctors had not determined the cause. She took a peek and was shocked to see that one of the numbers was way off: The marker for ovarian cancer was sky-high.
The following day, an oncologist confirmed the news. She had Stage 4 ovarian cancer and needed emergency surgery at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. Doctors ultimately found that the cancer had spread to her cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, colon, appendix, spleen and part of her liver and diaphragm. She learned she had only a 10 percent chance of surviving five years.
But Singer, a former police officer who had overcome a troubled childhood — including an alcoholic father — and an abusive marriage, knew she was a survivor. In addition to beginning a grueling chemotherapy regimen, she made major lifestyle changes, including eliminating meat, dairy and sugar from her diet. She added acupuncture treatments and Chinese herbs and started practicing qi gong, which combines Buddhism, Taoism, traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts for therapeutic effect.
“I fully expect to beat the odds this time. I’m juicing … everything, exercising, doing everything I possibly can,” she said. “But cells are microscopic, and it just takes one to split into two.”
After her first surgery, she realized she needed to pare down her life to essentials and learn to say no — no to activities, to energy-draining relationships with people “addicted to their own dramas” — and focus on her healing. She consoled herself in covid quarantine by sewing masks for her friends.
“I have enough life force and will for only keeping myself still on this planet at this point,” she said. “Covid has made it easier to do that.”
But the pandemic complicated her treatment in myriad ways. Doctors said she was not to leave her house, and friends who had been by her side during seven-hour chemotherapy infusions had to stay away.
She was initially refused a medical port implant, which would have made it easier to get the medicine into her system, because it was considered an elective surgery at a time when such procedures were being canceled to protect overwhelmed hospitals. But it was nearly impossible to continue treatment because the veins in her arms were hardening from the previous treatments. She was forced to put chemo on hold for five weeks until she was able to have a port implanted.
The removal of a lump in her breast that had been discovered before her ovarian cancer diagnosis was also delayed by the pandemic.
“Because I was undergoing chemo for an already established cancer, they said they were going to tackle one cancer at a time,” she recalled.
The mass in her breast was eventually determined to be benign, but the surgery to remove it, in July 2020, was another emotionally draining chapter.
“By then I was so tired of being cut into and drilled into and everything,” she said. “To be poked and pricked at, it was so much on the body.”
The one beautiful thing about quarantining during the pandemic has been spending time at home with her daughter, Nalaina, 13, and partner, John Brennan, 55, who has been by her side throughout her treatment.
“That was a blessing,” she said. “To know I could spend my remaining days maybe with my daughter and my boyfriend, that was a dream to me. I felt less alone.”
At one point during the summer of 2020, Singer needed a respite from all the medical appointments, so she and Nalaina sneaked away to a friend’s condo in Ocean City, Md. They gorged on fresh fruit, made sushi, swam in the pool and waded in the surf.
Nalaina has tried to help her mother when she can — giving her needed injections, cutting her hair when it began to fall out. The two made a plaster cast of Singer’s breasts, knowing she planned to have a bilateral mastectomy to prevent breast cancer. Singer, a painter and sculptor, hoped to use the plaster mold to make a Wonder Woman-style breastplate as an art project.
But she has tried to not ask too much of Nalaina, she said. It’s important that she stay a child and not lose her innocence.
“She always tells me, ‘You still look as beautiful as you did before,’ ” Singer said. “We laugh and joke about everything. She tells me all the time how much she loves me and assures me that I’m a great mom.”
Amid all the illness and fear, love deepened.
Singer and Brennan, high school friends, reconnected on Facebook in 2014 and grew closer as Singer was going through her divorce. They started with long telephone conversations, but it was several months before their first real date — lunch at an Asian restaurant. And it was longer still before Singer felt comfortable introducing him to Nalaina.
Brennan proposed in 2018 — not with a ring, but with a red-and-black Honda Shadow motorcycle so she could join him on road trips. They had planned a backyard wedding for 2021, but moved up the date when Singer went on medical leave from her teaching position and had to pay her health-care costs out of pocket. She spent $9,000 before she was able to move onto her husband’s insurance.
They married in August 2020, at the Frederick County Courthouse in Maryland, with Nalaina and Brennan’s two daughters from his previous marriage, Jaclyn, 24, and Erin, 28, as attendants.
It was a beautiful day. Singer wore a white halter dress and carried a bouquet of orange daylilies. They said traditional vows — pledging to be with each other “in sickness and in health.” Brennan made them all laugh when he boomed out his vows so those watching the live stream could hear.
Later, a gentle rain began falling, which Singer took as a good omen.
“It worked out perfectly,” she said.
As she enters the third year of her cancer journey, Singer remains on her regimen of chemo and will be taking Lynparza, a targeted oral drug, until June 2022. The drug could prolong her life, but the side effects are profound: severe cramping of her fingers, migraines and debilitating fatigue. She tries to cook dinner for her family when she can, but she often sleeps 15 hours at a stretch because of the drug.
“From time to time, it’s frustrating,” she said. “What if I have only three years left and I’m spending my days sleeping?”
And there was yet another hurdle to clear. Singer tested positive for the BRCA2 gene mutation that put her at increased risk for breast cancer. So with her doctor’s support, she scheduled a bilateral mastectomy for September.
Her sister, Rita Moustakas, 44, of Altadena Calif., came out to help after the surgery. Moustakas had her own double mastectomy in 2020 and is a breast cancer survivor.
After the surgery, Singer moved gingerly, and Brennan had to help her into the car and up the stairs once they were home. It was a shock later when she unwound the bandages and saw the lengthy scar across her chest for the first time. When Nalaina snuggled up to her as she always does, she said she missed her mom’s “soft pillows.” Singer told her, “Yeah, but look, now you are closer to my heart.”
In one sense, she felt relieved not having to carry the weight of her 36D breasts anymore, and she loves not having to wear a bra. More importantly, the threat of breast cancer no longer looms.
But, she said, “I lost my hair and I have no breasts and no lady parts to speak of. … What is being a woman anymore?” Her challenge now is to redefine her womanhood without them, she says.
When Singer first told Brennan that she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, he paused, put his hand on her back, looked at her and said, “Don’t worry, we’ll get through this.”
He’s taken the same approach to relearning intimacy after her surgeries, she said.
“We’re both learning how my body works again,” she said. “It’s not that it’s broken — it just works differently. I am so lucky. He’s really understanding and fun about it. I look like a disaster in the morning, and he tells me I look beautiful. He is just my best friend.”
One summer day, Singer went outside to sit in the hammock in her backyard. The air was warm and breezy, and she was drinking lemonade. She had just finished her second phase of treatment, and her mortality was very much on her mind. She began thinking: If she died, where would her energy go? She looked around and suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of oneness with the birds chirping, the fish in the stream behind her house, even the dirt underneath her feet. She felt for a moment an unfamiliar peace — and a tinge of excitement for what might happen next.
“I had to pull myself back,” she recalled. “I didn’t want to lose grip of where I was still and where I am still. It’s very important for me to be here for my daughter and my husband — and my life.”
She’ll write a letter to Nalaina and Brennan and her other loved ones about her epiphany one day, she said.
“Don’t be afraid for me. I’m absolutely sure it’s going to be a great thing wherever I happen to go,” she’ll tell them.