“My Voice” by Wendy Schwartz

Wendy Schwartz - 'Survivor'

At the end of 2003, I was at my gynecologist for a routine checkup. The doctor pressed on my abdomen and said “I think you have uterine fibroids. I want you to get an ultra sound.” At the time, I had no idea that those words would only be the beginning of a very long and arduous journey that would change my life forever. When the doctor’s office called me in January to tell me the results of the ultrasound, I was with my husband on vacation. We were attempting to relax from our already stressful life in Marco Island, Florida. We were in the car when I got a phone call and the nurse told me I didn’t have uterine fibroids, I had ovarian cysts, I asked if I could call them when I got back home and didn’t think anything of it.

When I got back home, I got an appointment to see the gynecologist, Dr. Friedman, in March 2004. At the appointment I had another ultrasound and the doctor told me the cysts were quite large. I would need to have an invasive surgery to remove them, but as I was a pre-school teacher, it could wait until after school ended in June. He said I could make my next appointment for the end of May, but I told him that I wasn’t comfortable waiting that long to see him again, so I made an appointment for the end of April. When I saw Dr. Friedman in April he was not so laid back about my condition. He told me that he had to remove the cysts as soon as possible and he would schedule me for the next available operating room at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. He gave me one week to finish teaching and say goodbye to my kindergarten students and colleagues. I had a bilateral cystectomy (removal of two cysts, one from each ovary) on May 3, 2004. I was in the hospital for many days as the cysts were quite large – one was nine centimeters in diameter. I couldn’t walk at all after the surgery and it took me a week or so until I could walk unsupported, as my abdomen was so sore.

As my husband had recently gotten a job new job in Chicago, my hometown, we had plans to move to Chicago that summer. The next appointment I had with Dr. Friedman he told me when I got to Chicago I should start fertility treatments as soon as possible if I wanted to have children and also find a gynecologic oncologist to monitor my condition. It never occurred to me for even a second there could be ovarian cancer in my future as a young married woman of 28 years old. When we moved to Chicago, I went to see a gynecologic oncologist. After a few visits he sent me for an ultrasound to monitor me and make sure the cysts didn’t return. On the prescription for the ultrasound, his nurse wrote borderline ovarian cancer. BORDERLINE OVARIAN CANCER????????? I could not believe there was a name for what I was going through and that the “what” was cancerous. Cancer is not something that happens to you, it only happens to other people; and it sure as heck doesn’t happen to you at 28!

The doctor said I would need a full hysterectomy in 2009, five years after the cysts were initially removed. The had no statistics for borderline cancers, but what they did know was that when it came back it was within the first year of removing the cysts or within 5-10 years. My husband and I began seeing a reproductive endocrinologist immediately. It was dizzying the amount of tests they did on us and after all that there was still the actual fertility procedure itself, which cost thousands of dollars. On top of all that, it was a rare month when I was actually allowed to have a fertility procedure, as any time they saw cysts they did not know if they were cancerous, so I had to hold off. Having a family and raising children had always been extremely important to me. All I had ever dreamed of was to be a wife and mother. Unfortunately, the pressure of being “on the clock” got to be too much for my husband and we separated in March 2007. Life was awful and I couldn’t imagine anything worse. That is until I decided to go to visit a friend in NJ to forget about my wedding anniversary in October 2007. My friend insisted on picking me up at Newark and it must have been divine intervention; ten minutes after she picked me up from the airport the PA called me with the test results from a biopsy (which was done after months of abnormal pap smears) and told me I had cancer. I was in shock. I called my husband, crying because my worst fear had come true. I thought if I worried enough, I wouldn’t actually get it. I remember saying to my friend “How do I tell my parents I have cancer?” Later, the oncologist called to speak with me. He told me I would need a full hysterectomy almost immediately, even though it was only 3 and a half years since the initial surgery and that they wouldn’t know until after the hysterectomy if I would need chemotherapy. I never got to harvest eggs or save ovarian tissue because of the nature of my cancer. I would never get to be pregnant or give birth to a child. I will mourn those losses for many years to come.

On January 21, 2008 I had a hysterectomy, because unfortunately, if I wanted any other options I wasn’t given any. This was my only chance; recovery; + hospital stays; chemo; nausea; more mourning; baldness; and after all that a 60% chance to live for five years, like a parolee. It’s horrible living with this fear. And I don’t know if it’s even really living. But I decided to do everything I could to help myself –- eat organic and hormone free… use natural beauty products without carcinogens. I even found a cancer website I liked that had other people my age. And one day, a friend who was even younger said they told her she had a 4% chance of living through the year and all of a sudden I felt like the luckiest person alive. And I knew then that I had to do something to make this world better and easier and more beautiful for other cancer patients because I understand and BECAUSE I CAN.

There are definitely no easy answers about all of this; unfortunately, there aren’t even any hard answers. I was so naive before and I had NO IDEA of the scope of human pain and suffering that was possible in this world. But the one thing that sticks in my mind when I ponder all the illness and senseless pain and suffering, the only remotely acceptable answer, is to teach others to help; to teach others to empathize and evoke such strong emotions from people that they will be compelled, forced by their own will even, to reach out and do a good deed for someone in pain.

It has taken me a long time to figure out what survivorship means to me, but I think I finally figured out how to put it into words – when you lose everything and constantly have to rebuild everything in your life from the bottom up…your health, career, finances and relationships. And through doing this you are forced to put  the fear of the unknown aside and blindly navigate your way because no one has ever traveled your exact path, or ever will again.