“When I was diagnosed with cancer, I got drafted to a team I really had no interest in. I felt alone, but soon realized in order to play the game; I needed to build my roster. This was a humbling learning experience. Too quickly I realized, who I thought would be on the roster, wasn’t interested in playing. It takes a lot of strength to realize when some players just simply – need to be traded….”
Meredith Mitstifer raises her voice to ovarian cancer, a disease that whispers, and raises it so that women will not have to walk this path alone. Her journey has been blessed with time, unlike a majority of ovarian cancer patients, and she shares it with us so that those who face this silent killer will not do so alone.
For years Meredith suffered with what was deemed “likely endometriosis”. Her symptoms, starting at the age of 19-years-old, included a feeling of fullness, bloating, painful intercourse, and frequent urination. And while most are signs of ovarian cancer, Meredith was young and ovarian cancer was never considered, discussed nor imagined. She underwent several laproscopic surgeries, but the symptoms persisted.
I just learned to “live with them.”
My doctors informed me that my continued symptoms were from “excessive scar tissue,” the residual effect of the surgeries… I had frequent ovarian cyst ruptures that would require emergency admissions. I was encouraged to have a baby to help ease symptoms related to my “endometriosis.” I really began to think it was just all in my head, and I just needed to get stronger and deal with the constant “uncomfortableness”.
That ‘just have a baby’ advice turned out not to be so simple,
My husband and I were married for a few years, and we were not able to get pregnant. We finally sought the expertise of a fertility specialist to assist us. During an exam, minutes prior to insemination, an “unknown mass” was found on an ultrasound and the procedure was put on hold until I was able to consult with a “gynecologic oncologist.”
Cancer? I was told not to worry – just a 5% chance and perhaps just my gynecological history repeating itself. After this consult, we decided to wait a month to see if this unknown mass would disappear and avoid surgery. The mass tripled in size and I was advised to have it removed immediately.
I attended my pre-operative appointment for surgery, and was informed that ironically, I must have conceived naturally within the past month of waiting. I was given two options, I could continue with immediate surgery, but abort the child, or wait until I was four months gestation and remove the mass. I chose the latter.
When Meredith was four months pregnant she had surgery to remove a large tumor on her left ovary. As it was being removed the tumor ruptured, spreading its contents,
Five days later I was both pregnant and diagnosed with clear cell, epithelial ovarian cancer at the age of 30 via a phone call from my gynecologist. Yes – a phone call and probably not the most ethical way to handle this kind of information. I had so many questions, with very little answers. A referral was made back to the gynecologic oncologist. Consults, research, and then a second opinion at Johns Hopkins all while attending prenatal care was a bit overwhelming.
The statistics at the time were one in 25 million women have had ovarian cancer at my age, let alone while being pregnant. What that translated to me was – no research or knowledge of how to effectively treat me.
Diagnosed with ovarian cancer and finally pregnant, Meredith faced another difficult decision – should she have treatment while pregnant?
I decided not to have any treatment until after I delivered. A c-section was tentatively scheduled in February and would be followed by a more comprehensive staging surgery, and a possible hysterectomy should the other ovary and fallopian tubes appear infected.
Meredith sought a second opinion:
My second opinion at Johns Hopkins actually convinced me that a radical hysterectomy, despite its prevalent recommendation for those with ovarian cancer, should be carefully considered given my age, child bearing wishes and inability to effectively treat menopausal symptoms at a young age. Despite a significant risk, I was convinced to look at quality of life factors, if the possibility existed that a clear ovary was observed. There was little confidence in where the cells might have spread during the rupture, however once inside, my physicians could get better answers.
Meredith’s son decided that he wasn’t going to wait until February to be born,
February obviously was not my destined month to deliver and on New Year’s Eve 2002, my son, and might I add fine little tax break was born premature by 5 weeks via C-section.
But what of her cancer? No longer pregnant, the surgeons could biopsy other areas of Meredith that they suspected might be cancerous.
My right ovary appeared “clear” and the decision although rare, was made to keep my ovary. A comprehensive staging surgery occurred, a more thorough “clean up” of my left side including complete removal of left fallopian tubes, additional biopsies of areas they could not test while pregnant, and an appendectomy since my type of cells are likely to attack there next.
Amid the bliss of a new baby, the sleep deprivation typical of all new parents, and the extra worry associated with a premature baby in the NICU, Meredith faced chemotherapy and the loss of someone she had expected to be a main team player as her spouse and co parent,
I began months of IV chemotherapy. The side effects began. I was lethargic, nauseous, and despite willing it hard to remain with lots of hairspray, I lost my hair.
My son was on a breathing monitor, my parents left their lives in Arizona to help with care giving, and if not blown away enough, my husband informed me that he quote “didn’t really mean in sickness and health.”
Here is when I realized the journey was far bigger than I could have ever imagined.
Fear became my stepping stone to empowerment. I relinquished what I could not control and decided to ride the waves and swim as best as I could. This of course would never have been possible without physicians that truly took the time with both me and my family, explored all our options, and genuinely cared about my well-being. They were so accommodating, giving of their time, and complete attention…I was blessed to have a team of gynecologic oncology physicians and nurses that exemplified true professionals in every way.
Looking back, the physiological symptoms of ovarian cancer were always there but I was never considered at risk. Why? I was young and did not have a family history of breast, colon or ovarian cancer. However – I had symptoms that were overlooked for years. It’s important to note woman of all ages are at risk, and it only takes some risk factors to be present to receive the diagnosis.
You don’t need to have a certain amount of checks in the boxes – to screen more thoroughly. Early detection saves lives. Although there are no reliable screening tests, observation, exams – vaginal and anal, and active listening to a patient’s symptoms do exist.
What happened next?
My life was forever changed. I packed up my infant son, my dog and moved to Arizona to finish my treatment, complete my doctorate, and refocused my dissertation research on perceived partner adaptation and psychosocial outcomes for cancer patients. Little did my husband know how greatly he impacted my academic focus and led me to publish and present research that stemmed from his behaviors and life choice to not be a caregiver, father or husband.
I stand before you, over 10 years strong. I love baseball. My cancer journey has taken on similar metaphorical powers of America’s past-time sport when I reflect on my experiences - When I was diagnosed with cancer, I got drafted to a team I really had no interest in. I felt alone, but soon realized in order to play the game; I needed to build my roster. This was a humbling learning experience. Too quickly I realized, who I thought would be on the roster, wasn’t interested in playing. It takes a lot of strength to realize when some players just simply – need to be traded….
Today, Meredith has remarried and her family has grown. Her son is no longer a babe in arms, but 11 years old and has two brothers. Meredith finished her doctorate and is a strong and healthy voice raising awareness about ovarian cancer and the importance of caregiver support.
Meredith has this message to medical professionals:
- Not only treat, but to be mindful of your patient’s journey
- Assist them in building what team they need to survive, heal, and rebuild, through all the curve balls thrown their way in the cancer journey.
- Always evaluate your team roster and play on the team that shares your dedication, ethics, and professionalism. Survivors can’t play the ball game alone. They will look to you for answers, and even if you don’t have them, be honest.
- Listen to survivors, and know you play such a crucial role in the lives of those suffering, struggling and healing.
Her wish? That women never need to “survive” or walk this journey alone.
The National Ovarian Cancer Coalition raises the voices of survivors and victims’ families, to raise awareness, to end the silence, so that women know the symptoms. Our local Tucson chapter provides support and focuses on awareness and education. Check them out on Facebook.
September is Ovarian Cancer, Prostate Cancer and Childhood Cancer Awareness month.
If you were given the chance to save one person you love from a cancer diagnosis would you take it? Here is your chance – The American Cancer Society is currently registering and enrolling Tucsonans for a longitudinal study (CPS-3) and Tucson Medical Center will be an enrollment site. It takes about half an hour for the initial appointment, a little time filling out a survey, no cancer diagnosis other than basal or squamous cell cancers, and between the ages of 30-65. For more information watch ourTMC for Children blog for an upcoming post with a personal story and the importance of CPS-3 and check out the American Cancer Society’s page.
Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on with hope, hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone – Rodgers and Hammerstein