For me personally, the greatest stress of living with cancer has involved making difficult medical decisions regarding my course of treatment. There is also the constant pressure of waiting for outcomes that I cannot completely control. When I was diagnosed with endometrial and ovarian cancer in late 2011, I was referred to the Tom Baker Cancer Centre where my case was reviewed by the Gynecologic Oncology Tumour Board. This team of doctors and specialized pathologists reviews all new referrals to ensure correct diagnosis and to recommend the best treatment plan. Almost instantly I became the patient of one of Western Canada’s most renowned pelvic cancer surgeons, Dr. Prafull Ghatage. I’ll never forget our first encounter with Dr. Ghatage, as my mother and I sat in stunned silence, he calmly explained that I required surgery as soon as possible. This news was overwhelming, especially since I had just undergone a total abdominal hysterectomy performed by my gynecologist. “I just had a hysterectomy and now I’m dying of cancer,” I tearfully blurted out. “You’re not dying, I’ll inform you if you are dying,” a voice immediately responded. These rational words jolted me back to reality, and before we left I signed a consent form for a laparotomy—a specialized procedure in which abdominal organs are removed, biopsied or repaired and a definitive diagnosis can be made.
That first meeting with Dr. Ghatage now seems like a lifetime ago. In a few weeks I’m scheduled for another routine checkup at the cancer centre. It’s essential that I be monitored regularly for a possible recurrence or any signs of malignancy—ovarian cancer has a notoriously high recurrence rate. Many women with the disease face at least one recurrence within five years of their first diagnoses. Since my cancer is considered to be fairly advanced, the standard course of treatment that was recommended included a month and a half of radiation therapy. Originally over twenty rounds of external beam radiation were advised and were to follow my cycles of chemotherapy. My understanding is that following through with this proposal might have reduced my odds of recurrence to as low as five or 10 per cent.
Last fall I made the excruciatingly difficult decision to forego treatment with radiation, opting for observation instead. The risks of pelvic radiation include the possibility of rectal bleeding—in addition some patients will experience a bowel blockage or a permanent change in bowel habits after their treatments are finished. In some cases undergoing radiation can result in bowel or bladder damage serious enough to be permanent or to require surgical intervention to correct. For most cancer patients the benefits outweigh these serious risks, which are comparatively small. But due to my personal medical history it’s almost certain that radiation would have posed a substantial danger. The radiation oncologist informed me that due to my previous bowel blockage the possibility of acute complications occurring would be much higher than average. Besides, I was undeniably exhausted from three consecutive abdominal surgeries in addition to five cycles of Carboplatin, at the time I felt I could endure little more.
As I await my appointment on May 23, the encouraging news is that I’m currently in remission—at least I am to my knowledge—and my chances of a complete cure are better the longer I remain in this state. The Canadian Cancer Society defines remission as a decrease in or disappearance of signs and symptoms of cancer. In partial remission, some, but not all, signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared. In complete remission, all signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared, although cancer still may be in the body. According to Ovarian Cancer Canada, 80 per cent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer will achieve remission. However, it is unknown if the cancer will come back or how long before it comes back. These unanswered questions linger in every woman‘s mind. In the meantime, I’ve made my health my primary focus—a nutritious diet, an appropriate exercise routine and getting enough sleep have never been more important. Obviously I’m careful to take my daily medication; I’ve been prescribed the drug Megace (generic name megestrol), it has been known to reduce recurrence rates in uterine, ovarian and breast cancer patients. Finally, hope and my steadfast determination to live each moment of my life fully and completely remain my allies in this dreadful waiting game.