Living T.E.A.L After My Cancer Scare

My routine doctor’s checkup saved my life.

It’s true. Four years ago, I was living life like any other busy workaholic—underslept and over caffeinated. When it came time for my annual gyno appointment, I kept pushing it off because I simply did not have the time. Besides, I felt healthy. I was exhausted, but I chalked it up to my 80-hour work weeks. I was bloated, but I presumed that was due to my diet. As far as I was concerned, these were merely “symptoms” of living and working in a city as a woman. If there was anything really wrong with me, I figured I would know.

So, I put it off. And I put it off. Until finally, I couldn’t justify putting it off any longer. I hustled to the doctor’s office in between meetings, coffee in one hand and cell phone in the other, expecting another benign checkup. I wanted to get in and get out so I could get back to the bustle of my daily life. What my doctor said, though, forced me to slow down. After the pelvic exam he said:

“Michelle, you have a suspicious growth on your ovary.”

He assured me it was likely nothing, but a few weeks later upon closer examination, he recommended I find an oncologist and his tone changed. The dreaded C word began to appear in my brain even though he never said the word.

Within three weeks, I was sitting in the office of the University of Chicago Medicine’s head of gynecologic oncology department, who informed me I had a very large tumor. Dr. Ernst Lengyel is one of the premier ovarian cancer experts in the country. He told me there was only a 10% chance it was benign, but to find the answer, I needed to undergo surgery.

Cancer

Walking into that surgery room was the scariest moment of my life. I was required to sign release papers giving the doctors permission to perform a hysterectomy if they did, in fact, discover it was cancer. I was still confident it was benign. After all, I felt no pain. I felt no symptoms. Wouldn’t I know if I had cancer?

When I woke up from the surgery, I learned that they had performed a hysterectomy because it had indeed been cancerous. That was a terrifying moment of realization for me. The gravity of my situation hit me like a ton of bricks. I was in complete shock. I had cancer. It happened to ME. I envisioned my kids growing up without a mother. My mind went to the worst place.

They needed to confirm what stage cancer it was and whether the cancer had spread or not. After an excruciating seven days in the hospital recovering, Dr. Lengyel called in just a few days after I was home when the pathology results were in.

“We caught the cancer while it was still stage one. It didn’t spread anywhere and was fully contained. Michelle, someone is watching over you. This never happens. You are blessed.”

He’s right. Even though 1 in 78 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer at some point in their lives, only about 20% of ovarian cancers are found at an early stage. That means that 80% of all women who are diagnosed with cancer have a low chance of survival because the cancer was caught too late. There is no early detection test and symptoms (like bloating and exhaustion) are too general to provide a mass prognosis, so the only way to successfully detect this cancer is through annual checkups like mine. When someone is diagnosed in the early stages (stages 1 and 2), the five-year survival rate is 90%. When the cancer is caught in stage 3 or higher, the survival rate is as low as 28%. Only 5% are diagnosed at Stage 1 and that was me!

That means that for a cancer as prominent as ovarian, which is the fifth leading cause of death for women age 35-74, the only way to catch it early and give yourself a good chance of survival is by going to a regular checkup with your gynecologist and really understanding the symptoms.

I’m just one story out of millions. And I know I’m one of the luckier ones. My doctors caught my cancer early enough to do something about it, and I’ve been fortunate enough to make a full recovery. Today, I’m the CEO and founder of an agency, and I’m busier than I’ve ever been. But I manage to find time to squeeze in doctor’s appointments, because I know first-hand what it could mean for your life and health when you put it off.

One of the ways I make my scary experience worthwhile is by telling my story. I do my best to raise awareness. If my story encourages even one woman to get checked out, then it will have been worth it. I’m fortunate to be a spokesperson for the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC) Illinois and we are doing a few things this month in honor of National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. First of all, if you are in Chicago, make sure you look at the building across the skyline on September 14th. They will all be lit up in teal to commemorate Take Early Action and Live (T.E.A.L.) But the action can’t be all passive. Share your story with us! If you go to the gyno for your checkup, we want to know about it! Post a photo of yourself using the hashtag #KnowOvarian. Encourage other women in your life to take early action and live T.E.A.L. We want as many people getting checked up as possible.

Join the movement. Fight the silent killer with us.

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