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Catherine Morgan

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One of my saddest cases working as a nurse was on the oncology unit. I had a young woman as my patient (she was in her late twenties, only a few years older than I was at the time), and she had been diagnosed with end stage ovarian cancer. I had been working on the oncology unit for over a year, and many times patients came to my unit in the last few weeks or days of their lives, mostly so they could be given large doses of pain medication to keep them comfortable. Everyone knew these patients were coming in not to be cured, but to die. It was always hard and always sad, but this time the woman dying was so young.

Unlike many of my other patients, I would never get to know this woman. She would only live another few days, and during that time she would be mostly unconscious from all the medications. But even so, I will never forget her. What I remember most was the sadness that surrounded her, her family standing and sitting around the bed, just waiting for her suffering to finally be over. Among all of the darkness and grief, a little girl (maybe two or three years old) was happily playing and skipping in and out of her mother's room, blissfully unaware. Every time I saw the little girl I thought how painful it must have been for her mother to know she would be dying and leaving her beautiful baby girl. How sad she must have been knowing she would miss all the important moments of her daughter's life. And how sad it was going to be for that little girl, growing up without her mother, never getting to know her. How could something so unfair be happening to this family? It seemed unfathomable to me, but I was watching it happen with my own eyes, I couldn't deny it. That was almost twenty years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday.

I didn't know it then, but only a few years later I would come eerily close to being in a similar situation as that young woman. And it was the thought of not being there for my children that was the hardest thing to deal with. The thought of not being able to see my babies grow up (my son was 3, my daughter just 4 months), of not being able to be their mother, not being there for their birthdays, their graduations, and their weddings, not being there to protect them from the world...Those were the thoughts that haunted me, even more than any fear I might have had of dying.

I would need to have surgery quickly and have the tumor removed, only then would I find out if the cancer had spread. Even though I was referred to the best oncologist in the area, I knew the outcome wasn't good if it had spread. I don't think anyone (unless you have personally been through it) can understand the horror of being put under anesthesia, knowing that when you wake up you might be told you are dying.

The last thing I remember just before I was put under, was my doctor telling me that because I was so young he would try to save my uterus and one ovary. I told him I was blessed to have two beautiful children, and that the only thing that mattered to me was being able to be a mom to my children. I pleaded with him not to take any chances, if there was even a remote chance it had spread, to please take everything and not leave anything behind. At this point, I was crying, and I grabbed the doctor's arm before he turned away to let the anesthesiologist finish putting me under...and I said; "Promise me, promise me you won't leave anything behind." I don't remember what he said...I just remember waking up in the recovery room. I remember calling out to everyone who walked by, "good or bad, good or bad, good or bad?" I said it over and over, but none of the nurses would tell me anything. Moments later my doctor was again standing over me, and he told me that he was able to get it all, and that I was going to be okay. I asked him if he was sure, and he said he was sure. I would be one of the lucky 19% of patients diagnosed early enough to survive, but even more importantly, I would get to be a mother to my children.

There will be 22,430 new cases of ovarian cancer in the United States this year, and 15,280 women will die. Maybe awareness of these few early warning signs will help raise the percent of women who can be diagnosed early, and be successfully treated.

I want to add something today, that I didn't mention when I wrote this original post...

The only reason my ovarian tumor was caught early, was because I had complications with my pregnancy. I had a history of ovarian cysts rupturing, and became pregnant right before I was scheduled to have a surgery to remove a large cyst on my right ovary. Instead of surgery, the doctor decided it would be best just to monitor the size throughout my pregnancy, and only operate if needed. About halfway through my pregnancy, they were unable to visualize the cyst. I was told it either had gone away on it's own, or was just being hidden by the pregnancy. Since I was having no pain, I figured it was gone. But, to be on the safe side, after my daughter was born, the doctor ordered an ultra-sound.

During the ultrasound I convinced the technician to tell me if the cyst was still there, and she said it was. It wasn't a big deal to me, I figured in a week or two the doctor would get the report and call me to tell me I had to have it removed. But, when I finally got the call from the doctor, he said it was no longer there. When I told him I thought the report he received might be wrong, because the technician had told me it was still there, he agreed to have the imaging company send him the pictures for his radiologist to review. He was sure that the technician was wrong, and angry because she should have never told me anything. Ironically, when he finally got back to me, it was the night I was going out to celebrate my birthday, September 22nd. He told me he had bad news...The fluid filled cyst had become a solid mass, that was making malignant changes.

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