For National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, we’ve asked Gwen Stevens to share her story. You’ll see that her journey to diagnosis was very similar to others, however, she uncovered two saving graces that she says changed her outcome. This is her story.
While my cancer journey began in June 2015, I’m going to back up seven months earlier.
It was early Nov. 2014, and my husband and I were in the process of packing up the contents of our home in The Woodlands in preparation of placing it on the market.
One Sunday afternoon, my husband was in the garage attic handing me items to pack. I was standing on the attic stairwell when I misjudged the level of the stair I was on. Yep, you know what happened next. I fell to the garage floor, hitting my head and twisting my left ankle. I really didn’t feel my head, but I grabbed my left ankle. Within minutes my ankle was a rainbow of colors.
The next day I went to the doctor, where I was diagnosed with a severe ankle sprain. I walked out with a high fashion walking boot and doctor’s orders to wear the boot for 12 weeks. The hardest thing for me was not being able to walk four miles a day, which was part of my regular routine. For as long as I could remember, I exercised daily – it was therapy for me.
We closed on our home in May 2015 and moved into temporary housing while our new home was under construction. I was mentally and physically exhausted, and I was gaining weight from not being able to exercise, or so I thought. This is where my cancer journey begins.
The Journey to Diagnosis
On June 22, 2015, I had my annual OB/GYN appointment and my doctor conducted a routine exam. However, when he pressed on my abdomen, I felt a pain that was definitely not normal. Looking back, I had a gut feeling something was not right prior to the appointment because I was rapidly gaining weight and my abdomen was hard. As they say, hindsight is 20/20.
My doctor scheduled an ultrasound, which was performed two days later. Unfortunately, the results were inconclusive due to the volume of fluid in my abdomen.
My doctor also scheduled a CT scan. When the results were ready, I received a call asking me to come in. During the meeting he advised me that although my pap smear was negative, he believed I had ovarian cancer.
Being connected to the medical community through my job, I was able to schedule an appointment with a gynecologic oncologist on June 30. During the first appointment, it was confirmed that my CT scan revealed four visible tumors ranging in size from 4 to 5 cm and my CA 125 (a protein in the blood that is usually high in women with ovarian cancer) was 8,847, well above the normal range of 0 to 35. Based on this information, my surgeon stated that although he did not know what type of ovarian cancer I had, he was 99 percent certain I had ovarian cancer.
On July 13, 2015, I underwent a seven-hour surgery. During the procedure, my surgeon removed 4.7 liters of fluid from my abdomen, and performed a full hysterectomy and colon resection resulting in a temporary ileostomy. Post surgical testing determined I had High Grade Serous Carcinoma Stage IV Ovarian Cancer.
I had another surgery for a port placement prior to starting chemotherapy treatments. My chemo regimen was six sessions with each session three weeks apart. Thankfully, I was cancer free by the conclusion of treatment. I was monitored monthly and underwent a quarterly CT scan. I also underwent BRCA genetic testing and did not have a genetic mutation.
In February 2016, my ileostomy was reversed and I remained cancer free. I returned to work a year to the date of my original cancer diagnosis.
Seven months later I had a recurrence. My CA 125 count was elevated to 37 and a CT scan revealed one small tumor under my right rib cage.
My Saving Graces
In my mind, the recurrence was a death sentence. I’d lost all hope. But what happened next was a miracle. As I was sitting in the doctor’s office that day to confirm the recurrence, a piece of paper kept falling out of a magazine rack. Each time, I would replace it without reading it. The last time, out of exasperation, I turned the paper over. It was a flyer for Teal Tales, an ovarian cancer support group at Canopy, Memorial Hermann The Woodlands’ cancer survivorship center. The first meeting was that evening.
After my doctor’s appointment, my husband and I drove directly to Canopy for the Teal Tales meeting. Just hours after hearing my cancer was back, I met other women like me – two were on their third recurrence and one was on her sixth recurrence. That meeting gave me the hope I was desperately seeking. I realized I could and would fight this cancer with the support of others. Canopy was, and still is, a blessing from God.
In October 2016, I had surgery to remove the tumor, followed by six additional chemo treatments. They were treatments from hell. I developed a severe allergic reaction to the chemo, which my doctor said isn’t uncommon, especially when the recurrence happens in a short period of time – just 11 months in my case.
The treatments zapped all my strength, leaving me with significant pain, fatigue and cognitive issues, also known as chemo brain. To help address these issues, I entered cancer rehabilitation at TIRR Memorial Hermann — The Woodlands. Working with physical, occupational and speech therapists, I was able to focus on increasing my strength and endurance, reducing my pain and improving my overall quality of life. It’s truly been a game changer.
I’ve wrapped up physical and occupational therapy, but still attend speech therapy for ongoing cognitive issues resulting from the chemo treatments.
Also, I am happy to say I recently returned to work part-time. My next appointment for blood work and imaging is scheduled in mid-Oct., and with the grace of God, I will continue to be cancer free.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 22,400 women will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer this year.
Due to lack of symptoms ovarian cancer is typically diagnosed in a later stage and can be life threatening. There are many risk factors, one of the most prevalent ones is family history. If you have family history of ovarian cancer you could be more at risk. According to the American Cancer Society your ovarian cancer risk is increased if your mother, sister, or daughter has (or has had) ovarian cancer. If you have family history of ovarian cancer, please discuss your screening options with your primary care physician or your gynecologist.
Learn more about cancer programs at Memorial Hermann.