Ovarian cancer is a hard taskmaster, but cancer teaches us important life, faith and family lessons
Kelly Irvin is a multi-published novelist and former newspaper reporter who worked in public relations for more than 20 years. She retired from her day job in 2016 after being diagnosed with primary lateral sclerosis, a degenerative motor neuron disease, and stage 4 ovarian cancer. She spends her days writing and loving her family.
September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Recently, the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC) tweeted asking women to share what ovarian cancer has taught them. I tweeted that it taught me to never take time or people for granted.
That’s the social media 140-character response. The easy response. The expected response.
A person doesn’t get a life-threatening diagnosis of stage 4 cancer without learning some hard and unwelcomed lessons. Thankfully, moments of enlightenment and joy are mixed with the darker ones. Both are like the fire honing the silver, giving the lessons learned brilliance and durability.
The first unfortunate lesson I learned was that I’m not as nice a person as I thought I was. I was horrified and ashamed to find that I was an awful, cranky, irritable patient. Drowning in fear and uncertainty, I didn’t want to wait for a hospital room, for lab work, for treatment and for answers. To my husband’s great embarrassment, I had no problem letting the nurses and other staff members know this in no uncertain terms. I paced the floor. I ranted. I raved. Fear coursed through my body and came out in a wave of impatience in direct proportion to my frustration at the loss of control over my body and my life.
When it came to my faith, I learned that I talked the talk with the greatest of ease, but I found walking the walk to be an entirely different matter. How could God allow me to be afflicted with primary lateral sclerosis (PLS) in late 2015, only to permit the scourge of ovarian cancer in January of 2016. My faith was devastated. I questioned everything. How could God – my God whom I’ve worshipped faithfully since childhood — allow this? Why did He not hear my prayers for my gait to be restored? Not only did He not perform a miracle of healing on my legs, He didn’t respond to my prayers that day in the hospital when I had the biopsy. I asked for benign. I got metastatic carcinoma.
Those were dark and scary days. I worried. I shook my fist at the sky. I blubbered. But the days passed and the sky lightened. Lessons were learned along the way. With time, I began to see that prayers were being answered in a distinctly undeniable way. I learned church families are gifts from God. Give them a prayer request and they hunker down and storm the throne room. Tell them I’m starting chemo and they present me with a pink and red, fleecy blanket over which they have prayed. They make me meals and they offer me hugs and they are the light in in my day. They are the answer to my prayers.
I learned the doctors and nurses and lab technicians who treat cancer patients have some of the hardest jobs in the world and they do it with a deep and genuine desire to defeat an often overwhelming foe. They surely don’t deserve my fear-driven impatience and irritation. They are the answer to my prayers.
I learned I didn’t always make good choices in how I spent my precious time. Stop with the TV reruns and the bad movies. Read more good books. Stop finishing books I really don’t like.
Somewhere along the line, in the midst of accessing my port, the infusions and the CT scans, I learned that this journey has enriched my life as much as it has impoverished it. Now I take time to stare out the window and notice how the wind rustles the leaves in the tree branches. I take time for poetry breaks. I’ve been reminded of how much I like trees, sunshine, blue skies and the sound of the birds chattering. I like fresh flowers on the coffee table. I like ice cream and pie and warm cookies. I feel no guilt in eating dessert first.
I learned that I didn’t have time to make a good impression. I might only get this one shot with my grandchildren. What will they remember about me? What will they have learned from me.? Will it be not only what I’ve said, but how I’ve lived? I want every minute that I can have with them because it’s possible that there won’t be a second or third chance to get it right. Everyone knows their time on this earth is finite. Yet, they act as if they have all the time in the world to make an impact, to bless others, to be worthy of having lived.
Women with ovarian cancer know differently. I write faster and longer every day because I want to make sure I tell all the stories I possibly can, all the stories God wrote on my heart in the beginning, the stories He intended for me to tell in his glory and his honor.
Life can change in the blink of an eye. For me, it came one day in the middle of a country road where I was taking a walk, enjoying the sunshine and the blue sky. I realized I was having trouble picking up my feet. That was the beginning of learning the true meaning of faith and about not taking people or time for granted.
My cancer responded to treatment. I was declared no evidence of disease (NED) in July 2016. That could be why I’ve gotten better at handling the bumpy ride. But I think it’s because having my health striped away left nothing to cling to but my faith. When my cancer recurred this July, I handled it much better. The grumpy old lady didn’t reappear. Instead, I thanked God for the folks at Texas Oncology who were right there with me to restart treatment immediately.
My tumor markers are headed down again. The next CT scan is coming up. Am I anxious? Yes, but I have learned to hold on for the ride. Ovarian cancer will be with me for the rest of my life. But so will my family, my church and my God. Lessons were learned the hard way, but sometimes that is
the only way to truly learn the important lessons.