By now, most of us are well aware that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but how many of us know that September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month? While ovarian cancer is not as well known as breast cancer, it is just as dangerous. Samantha Lockwood learned this from personal experience and wants to make sure more women know what it is and how to identify signs and be pro-active with medical professionals.
Samantha Lockwood is a Sr. Manager of Talent Acquisition Operations for Comcast Corporation in Philadelphia, Pa. She grew up in Hazleton, Pa. and moved to the Philadelphia area 20 years ago. She is a successful career woman with a bright future, but a few years ago her world came crashing down when she learned she had ovarian cancer. Below she shares her transformative story and provides tips on what women can do to fight ovarian cancer.
How Did You Find Out You Had Ovarian Cancer?
Lockwood: 2004 had been a rough year for me. I ended a long-term relationship, I moved to South Philly from the suburbs and I started a new job. Life was hectic, but things started to fall into place at the end of the year. My New Year’s resolution in 2005 was to “get my life together,” i.e. pay my bills on time, get my checkups, go to the dentist, etc.
On January 2nd of that year I went for my annual gyn exam. The doctor felt a mass and sent me for an ultrasound. Later that day, he called me. There was a 10 cm “cyst” on my left ovary. It needed to come out. Though I had asked the doctor if there was a possibility it could be cancer, he told me with some certainty that it was nearly unheard of for someone my age to have ovarian cancer. I was thirty years old. We scheduled the surgery for February 18th of that year.
That weekend I went to my local rock climbing gym where I’d been climbing regularly for about a year to tell the manager that I needed to cancel my membership for a few weeks while I recovered from surgery. The manager was concerned and suggested I talk to another member of the gym who was a physician at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania named Dan. Though Dan wasn’t a gynecologist he looked over my records and insisted I see a specialist called a gyn-oncologist. The word oncologist freaked me out but assured me his recommendation was based only on the fact that gyn-oncologists have more experience and expertise performing all gyn surgeries. He knew I wanted to have children one day. Oblivious as to what I was about to go through, I based my surgeon decision solely on who could get me in and out sooner. I wanted to get back to rock climbing ASAP.
Dan got me an appointment with one of the top gyn-oncologists in the city of Philadelphia, as well as the country, and while this doctor also did not believe I had cancer, he was able to schedule my surgery for February 16th, two days earlier than the doctor at the county hospital where I used to live. Before I woke up from surgery, my parents and my new boyfriend were told that I had undergone a full cancer staging surgery because the gyn-oncologist was able to identify that I had ovarian cancer. Four weeks later I started chemotherapy. I was diagnosed again in 2008, had another surgery and more chemotherapy. Finally, in May of 2009 I was declared cancer free and remained so ever since.
Lockwood: I have a sense of my own mortality that I didn’t have before. I appreciate feeling physically fit in ways that I never understood before. Even though cancer today feels very far away, I can still remember what it felt like, smelled like, and tasted like. I remember what it was like to be too weak to walk down the block, let alone go for a bike ride. Now that I’m healthy, I try not waste it. This past summer, I set some pretty big goals on my bicycle and achieved them. I rode my bike up Mt. Evans in Colorado (14,100’ altitude) in July and recently rode my bike up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, which is touted as the hardest hill climb in the country. Two years ago I rode my bike 540 miles in six days. Right now I’m really into rock climbing again. I do this stuff because I can, I remember the days when I couldn’t even try.
What Has Surprised You Most?
Lockwood: What surprised me most about ovarian cancer is how the right medical team can make so much of a difference. I was diagnosed early by pure coincidence. While I did have symptoms, I assumed they were from stresses in my life. I just happened to go to the doctor. I just happened to see a specialist at the urging of a friend. Turns out that many women who experience symptoms do go to their doctors repeatedly only to be misdiagnosed.
I also had to learn that it is okay to question doctors. Even the best doctors are not perfect. They rely on us to give them feedback and to question them. They sometimes disagree with each other. Medicine is not black and white.
Many women have never heard of gyn-oncologists. The truth is that having a gyn-oncologist perform the initial surgery for ovarian cancer increases survival rates by nearly 25%. Being diagnosed early gives women a 90% chance of recovery. Sadly, most women are not diagnosed early and there is no reliable early detection test. In fact, the first line of treatment for ovarian cancer has not changed in over
30 years. It is insane when you think about how technology has changed nearly everything on earth in the past 30 years. Why is ovarian cancer treatment so neglected? The truth is that it is a very hard problem to solve and there aren’t enough research dollars available for this disease.
What Has Helped You Most?
Lockwood: I think being flexible has helped me the most. I’m a very active person, I usually spend my weekends rock climbing, hiking, or cycling. Being still can be extremely hard for someone like me. Fortunately, I can also find joy in things like knitting and reading. I often say “do what you love, and when you can’t do it, find something else to love and do that.”
How Can Women Know If They Have Ovarian Cancer? What Are the Signs?
- Abdominal pressure, bloating, or discomfort
- Nausea, indigestion, or gas
- Urinary frequency, constipation, or diarrhea
- Abnormal bleeding
- Unusual fatigue
- Unexplained weight loss or gain
- Shortness of breath
What Should Women Do If They Think They Might Have Ovarian Cancer?
Lockwood: Go see a gynecological oncologist. Gyn-oncologists are specially trained to recognize and treat ovarian cancer. When a gyn-oncologist performs the initial “de-bulking” (when tumors are removed) surgery, a woman has a 25% greater chance of five-year survival.
What Do You Think Needs to Change to Get Better Treatment for Women Who Have Ovarian Cancer?
Lockwood: Ovarian cancer needs more funding and awareness campaigns. We need an early detection screening. There is no mammogram or pap smear for ovarian cancer. We need more awareness of the symptoms so that women can get diagnosed earlier. We need better treatments. The first line of treatment for ovarian cancer has not changed in 30 years, insane. So much funding and attention goes to breast cancer, which is great, survival rates have increased dramatically since the 1970s when the world started paying attention. However, survival rates of ovarian, lung, and pancreatic cancers remain very low for women. I would love to see some of these other cancers get the same funding and attention as breast cancer so that we can increase survival rates across the board.
What Advice Would You Give to Women Dealing with Cancer or Other Challenging Life Situations?
Lockwood: Everyone deals with this differently. There is no right way. That said, the instinct to live is primal and people are built to be resilient. We are stronger than we think we are. Yet, we are not invincible. I know I felt a lot of pressure from hearing stories about cancer survivors who “were always positive” and “never complained” and “never asked, why me?” Well, when I was diagnosed, I was pretty devastated, angry and I wanted to know why I got cancer. It is completely normal to be pissed off and sad that all of a sudden you have cancer, your life is turned upside down. Your loved ones are also suffering because of it. It is silly to expect yourself to live up to an ideal that isn’t realistic. Go through the emotions you have to go through, it is a healthy process. It is important to let yourself feel joy and happiness, too. Don’t let the sadness and anger consume your every breath because that isn’t living.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Tell Us More About HERA Women’s Cancer Foundation, What It Does and Your Role?
Lockwood: HERA Women’s Cancer Foundation’s mission is to stop the loss of women through Health, Empowerment, Research and Awareness. I am the Vice President of the Board of Directors. I am also the chair of the Marketing committee.
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