Posted by Chana Garcia, Sept. 15, 2009
On her blog, blackgyrlcancerslayer.wordpress.com
In June of 2008, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, a particularly deadly disease that is more often than not found in its later stages. This is due to the cancer’s vague symptoms — bloating, indigestion and loss of appetite — which seem harmless at first but usually become apparent when the disease has spread to other organs. That was certainly true in my case.
When I think back, I realize that I had classic symptoms. At the time, I attributed them to all the partying I had been doing a few weeks earlier while on vacation. But when things got worse, I knew something was really wrong. By the time I was diagnosed, the cancer had spread to other parts of my abdomen and a lymph node.
Within weeks, I had surgery to remove the malignant tumors, and soon after, I started a tough chemotherapy regimen. It took a toll on my body but not my spirit. In fact, cancer turned me into a crusader and, more recently, a teacher.
In August, I joined a simple but ingenious program, Survivors Teaching Students, which places ovarian cancer survivors in medical classrooms to share personal stories and information with med students, future nurses and aspiring physicians’ assistants (PAs). Instructing future doctors and nurses is a job I never imagined being offered, let alone accepting. Until last year, I was more likely to write articles about experts in the medical field rather than lecture in front of them.
But I’ve become an authority in my own right, and my story, however unlikely, could help save lives.
Created in 2002 by long-term survivor Betty Reiser, STS is designed to increase students’ understanding of ovarian cancer and raise awareness about the disease. To date, the program has been instituted in 65 medical schools nationwide.
It’s a fitting reversal of roles — patients educating tomorrow’s health care practitioners.
This month is particularly important to those touched by ovarian cancer. September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness month, a time when survivors and our advocates turn up the volume about the disease’s signs and symptoms.
There is no effective screening tool for ovarian cancer, which explains why more than 70 percent of cases are found in the advanced stages. The five-year survival rate is a dismal 47 percent, but if caught early, it increases to about 90 percent. Clearly, early detection is crucial. And that is the program’s primary goal.
I had my first teaching experience in front of 15 fellows at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Speaking in public isn’t something I’m good at, and I was extremely nervous about discussing my private battle with cancer while all eyes were on me. My voice cracked nervously as I introduced myself to the folks in the room. I thought for sure they knew they had a newbie on their hands. When I began recounting the details of the last year, I found myself racing through my story so quickly that I skipped over several of the points I had rehearsed over and over in my mind.
The group, nevertheless, listened attentively, and the more I talked, the more comfortable I began to feel. Midway through, the butterflies subsided, and I was actually starting to feel confident. Some of the fellows looked shocked; others seemed pensive. I’m willing to bet I was the first 33-year-old ovarian cancer survivor they’d seen. This is a disease known to disproportionately affect older Jewish women. But I was there to let them know that ovarian cancer knows no age, no statistic, no race.
Three other survivors also shared their stories, and afterward, the fellows followed up with really good questions:
- “When did you suspect that something was wrong?”
- “How can doctors support their patients after a cancer diagnosis?”
- “How effective are new anti-nausea and pain medications?”
Next up was a talk with students at Wagner College, a lovely little school nestled high atop a hill in Staten Island. There, I spoke to first-years in the school’s PA program. We hit it off instantly. The students asked about resources for friends who had a family history of ovarian cancer. They shared their perspectives on the ethics of clinical trials and even told me they liked my post-chemo hairdo. Our hour-long conversation lasted for two.
“You guys left a tremendous impression on the students,” said Diane Pane, an academic coordinator at Wagner. “That’s all they’ve been talking about. Now, they want to get a group in here for every disease we talk about. They told me it was better than a PowerPoint presentation.”
I have never been someone interested in attending a support group, but I imagine this must be what it’s like. Through STS, students learn to associate a face with ovarian cancer, and survivors lead informative discussions among people who will care for others diagnosed with the disease.
“Survivors Teaching Students enhances health care students’ understanding of ovarian cancer symptoms and risk factors,” explains Karen Orloff Kaplan, CEO of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance. “This understanding facilitates earlier detection and leads to more effective treatment.”
As I continue with my own recovery, the students and fellows I’m meeting are playing a pretty important role. Speaking to them is therapeutic and, in some sense, liberating. I just hope that when they look back at his experience, I will have helped them as much as they’re helping me.
Chana Garcia is a journalist and blogger in New York City who writes about life as an ovarian cancer survivor.