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.
Patients with cancer are acutely aware of how time is finite, and that's ok. They can appreciate the fit of time all the better.
For many people, the advent of a new year is a time of taking stock, looking forward and making resolutions. For me, as a woman living with stage four ovarian cancer, it is also a time of urgent self-evaluation.
I’m still here, is the thought that keeps reverberating in my head. That’s because January is my diagnosis anniversary. Four years ago, on January 13th, my husband and I sat in my oncologist’s office and heard the words “metastatic ovarian cancer.” This happened only one month after I received a diagnosis of Primary Lateral Sclerosis (PLS) from my neurologist. I thought the worst thing that could ever happen to me had happened. I was wrong.
People talk about how life can change in an instant because of an accident, or the loss of a loved one, or a natural disaster. Cancer is like that. Hopes and dreams shrink as the reality sinks in. This life, my life, was much more finite than it was just moments before. Strangely, at the time, what I most felt was relief. I knew so little about ovarian cancer I was relieved. It wasn’t lung cancer or colon cancer (I knew two lovely women who perished from those cancers), I figured they could take out my ovaries—after all, I didn’t need them anymore—give me some chemo and I’d be good to go.
With good intentions, I’m sure, my oncologist reinforced that naïve assumption. She said the cancer was “highly treatable.” I interpreted that to mean “highly curable.” I walked out of her office knowing I would have chemo, surgery, and more chemo. I might lose my hair. I might throw up. I might get mouth sores. I might be tired. But I would survive.
It wasn’t until later that I understood what treatment and survival would entail. I came across my diagnosis on my patient portal account while waiting for my first chemotherapy treatment. The words stage four stared up at me. The statistics available at that time revealed that only 19% of women diagnosed at stage four survived five years. That hoped-for future of retirement, traveling, enjoying grandchildren, and writing to my heart’s content shrank to one in which treatment would never end. Periods of NED (no evidence of disease) would require maintenance treatment in hopes of extending those periods. I would never not be in treatment. Highly treatable, indeed. This was my new so-called normal.
So in 2020, I’m starting that fifth year NED after two recurrences. I’ve been given the precious gift of time. I ask myself if I’ve used this time—time so many other ovarian cancer patients don’t get—well.
What have I accomplished? Have I stopped dwelling on my fate? Am I more patient with my healthcare givers? Is dedicating myself to writing inspirational fiction the best use of my time? Am I spending enough time with my family? Should I be traveling the world and fulfilling my bucket list while I can? Am I piddling away my time with social media and inane TV shows? What does my report card look like?
The truth is no one knows what the future will bring. I could die in a car accident tomorrow. I could contract the flu and perish. A tornado could level my home with me in it. I’m not being morbid. Time is finite for everyone. Cancer patients are simply acutely aware of how precious time is to us.
Taking stock of the past year and resolving to do better in the coming year is good. So is simply living my best life. It’s not about goals or resolutions for me. It’s about joy and appreciating the gift of time.
I enjoy the cardinals on the birdfeeder outside my breakfast nook window. I giggle over silly videos of my grandkids sent to me by my daughter. I watch “Sixty Minutes” with my husband and ponder the state of the world we live in. Appreciating small moments is important for every one of us regardless of our health.
I’ve been so blessed over the past four years, getting to know my three grandchildren, publishing numerous books, spending time with my husband, participating in my church, moving to a country home, and much more in spite of the disease.
No matter what comes, cancer can’t take those joyous moments from me. Going forward, it’s up to me to make sure of that.