A Different Kind of Survivor
Ovarian cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the ovaries. Women have two ovaries, one on each side of the uterus. The ovaries — each about the size of an almond — produce eggs (ova) as well as the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Ovarian cancer often goes undetected until it has spread within the pelvis and abdomen. At this late stage, ovarian cancer is more difficult to treat and is frequently fatal. Early-stage ovarian cancer, in which the disease is confined to the ovary, is more likely to be treated successfully. Surgery and chemotherapy are generally used to treat ovarian cancer. It's not clear what causes ovarian cancer.
In general, cancer begins when a genetic mutation turns normal cells into abnormal cancer cells. Cancer cells quickly multiply, forming a mass (tumor). They can invade nearby tissues and break off from an initial tumor to spread elsewhere in the body (metastasize). Treatment of ovarian cancer usually involves a combination of surgery and chemotherapy.
Treatment generally involves removing both ovaries, the fallopian tubes, the uterus as well as nearby lymph nodes and a fold of fatty abdominal tissue (omentum) where ovarian cancer often spreads. Your surgeon also will remove as much cancer as possible from your abdomen. Less extensive surgery may be possible if your ovarian cancer was diagnosed at a very early stage. For women with stage I ovarian cancer, surgery may involve removing one ovary and its fallopian tube. This procedure may preserve the ability to have children. After surgery, you'll likely be treated with chemotherapy to kill any remaining cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs can be injected into a vein or directly into the abdominal cavity or both. –www.mayoclinic.org
I sometimes stare at my photo during Alumni Weekend at Fisk University in 2006. I was all smiles; excited to see my family from past and present graduating classes. Happy that the academic year had finally come to an end. Elated that I was surrounded by friends and family who I knew loved, cared for, and supported me. And as I focus more on my bald head, my hefty weight, my sunken eyes…..eyes that hid 7 worlds of pain……I was reminded of a handful of people who are, in one way or another, a part of the same club as I am. Kanye West; Kathy Bates; Aron Ralston; Chris Gardner; Antwan Fisher; the passengers of La Amistad; the passengers of the Andes Mountain crash; Solomon Northup. These individuals have survived something significant at some point in their lives. They are among an elite group of individuals who, by their very own lives, prove that will and ethereal grace will bring anyone out of anything. I, Kawana Nicole Williams, like those names before mine, am a survivor. But I didn’t just survive my diagnosis: I survived the aftermath of it.
I remember it like it was yesterday; it was a Monday. January 16th. I can’t recall the time; post-surgery morphine makes my memory a big foggy on certain details. I do remember, however, how I was told about my diagnosis. It hit me like 7 tons of bricks: my left fallopian tube, my left ovary, my appendix, and my tomentum were all removed having been riddled with benign cancer cells. “Oh, and by the way: you have Stage 1-C Ovarian Cancer.” There was no buffer; there was no warning; there was no tact. There was just the truth: that a cancer that should have killed me would not. And for that, and that alone, I was grateful. What I will never be grateful for is everything that followed my diagnosis: the confusion, the depression, the anxiety, the insomnia, the anger, the panic attacks, the atheism, the acting out, the drug and alcohol use; the sexual promiscuity. All these things followed my diagnosis because, quite frankly, I never allowed myself time, space, or resources, to deal with it. From the moment that I heard the words “ovarian cancer,” I immediately went into survival mode mentally and emotionally. Once my last round of chemo ended, I was left to survive beyond that moment. “Okay, so I finished chemo: now what?” I had no idea, and nobody else did either. Here I was: 23, bald, fat, weak, mad, and lost without a roadmap to recovery. I didn’t realize until later that trying to create my own road would prove more damaging than it would good.
I wound up back in Chicago two years after my diagnosis: broke, broken, and angrier than I was when I was diagnosed. I was single: my relationship the casualty of my diagnosis, treatment, and permanent post-diagnosis attitude. I was destitute: having quit all 3 of my jobs to return home from Nashville after my apartment was broken into. And I was broken: physical, mental, and emotional scars haunted me like the tree on the back of Sethe from Beloved. My pain and depression consumed me, and I had oceans of both to distribute. My sleep pattern was off; if I wasn’t asleep half of the day, I was awake through the night. The only things that could helped me sleep at all were marijuana, alcohol, or an unhealthy dose of both. Coming out of a 3-year relationship, being alone during a time such as this was not something I was equipped to handle; and sex was the quickest way to fill a void for attention and support that remained empty, even after the point of orgasm. I was just doing things… anything….to mask my pain. And instead of seeking help for it, I continued to justify my actions, even with myself. I was just being me. I was only 25. I had just had 6 loved ones die within the first 6 months of my return home. I was just trying to figure my life out. And while these things were catalysts for my dysfunctional behavior, I knew deep down why I was how I was: I was hurting behind the fact that I was ever diagnosed with cancer in the first place. I was pissed that I felt like cancer, and God, had thrown a monkey wreck deep enough in my life’s plans to cause a ripple effect the size of Hurricane Andrew. And what’s worse: I was hurting because there was no one to help me. Not even me.
I was having a conversation with my father some years after my diagnosis. By this time, I was thigh-high into my depression, substance abuse, and sexual activity. I was mad at the world; I was drinking and smoking more than I was eating; and I was having sex with any and everything that looked like it found me attractive. And at the time, I never gave thought to the possibility that all these things were just defense mechanisms to my avoiding the obvious: I was in a lot of pain, and I was letting it rule me. And my father knew it. And being the father he had always been to my siblings and I, he told me about it. “Man look, you’re letting this…..your diagnosis….control you. You never let ANYTHING control you. Hell, you don’t half listen to me or your mother. You’ve never let anything or anyone rule you a day in your life, and you are letting this RULE YOU!!!!!!!!!!!! You can’t do that. Because who you are now is not who you are. Who you are is being dictated by your past. You gotta find a way to deal with it.” And he was right. But where do I begin?
I can’t tell you where it ended for me because I still live with some of it today. 11 years of insomnia, depression, anxiety, and panic attacks seem like my everyday normal because, at this point, they are. The difference between me living with them 5-7 years ago and me living with them now is the counseling and deep spiritual work I did, and continue to do, to keep them all under control. My alcohol consumption has slowed to almost zero (well, slowed to casually, as being a student does not leave a lot of casual time) and I am currently working on the means to gain a medicinal card for my insomnia and anxiety. My sex life has been whittled down to one healthy lover: and he is more than enough in that, and other, aspects. These aspects of surviving cancer are hardly addressed; and I have made it my life’s mission to put a face to them. Because there is someone else out there, like me, who beat the physical disease, but could not beat the mental and emotional anguish to follow. There is someone else out there who is dealing, but not in a healthy way. There is someone else out there who is angry and cannot process it. There is someone else out there who is hopeless in trying to create their own roadmap to healing with no guidance for construction.
And because of this…..because of them…..I no longer walking around as if I’m Superwoman because I beat cancer. I walk around as if I didn’t let it beat me….because it didn’t. And I won’t let it.
Kawana N. Williams is a native Chicagoan and the author of, “Coming to My Crossroads", a memoir about her diagnosis of and struggles with ovarian cancer. She is currently a licensed Professional counselor with the State of Illinois and a second year doctoral student at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.