When the Killer Is Not So Silent

Ovarian cancer was long thought to be asymptomatic and mostly a threat to older white women. One survivor learned the hard way that there's no such thing as a typical victim

09HEALTH-GARCIA2-LIVE

Garcia and her father

Within a week of taking the test, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, stage III C––cancer was in both ovaries and had spread to the lymph nodes, and deposits of cancer were seen in my abdomen. Anything beyond stage II is considered advanced. At stage IV, the most advanced phase of ovarian cancer, the disease has usually spread to other organs. At first, I was in disbelief, then shock. After speaking with my surgeon about plans to undergo a full hysterectomy and learning this would make it impossible for me to have children of my own, an overwhelming sadness set in. It’s one thing to choose not to have children; it’s another to have the choice taken from you. To make matters worse, my boyfriend and I had recently been discussing starting a family. Like most women, I envisioned the baby I would carry in my belly and the family we would have together. That’s when my sadness turned into anger.

I wasn’t supposed to be a statistic of ovarian cancer. This is a disease that primarily affects white women over the age of 50. As a 33-year-old black woman, I didn’t fit the bill. I’m an example of what happens when the medical community engages in age- and race-based biases. I don’t think it occurred to my gynecologist, who’s also a young black woman, that ovarian cancer could happen to me.

Raising Awareness Through An Alliance
After an aggressive surgery—called radical debulking—that included a full hysterectomy to remove my tumors, as well as the removal of one of my lymph nodes, I underwent eight rounds of chemotherapy, dropped 25 pounds, and lost all my hair. My treatment regimen was tough. Each cycle included three drugs, given over two weeks, twice a month. The combination fatigued me, but I forced myself to get out of the house. I had no plans to let cancer get the best of me. I walked around my neighborhood, visited my friends and family, and looked forward to the day when I would feel like my old self again. I was determined to fight through all the physical, emotional, and psychological anguish of this beast and to help other unlikely victims become better advocates for their health.

A rare disease, ovarian cancer accounts for about 3% of all cancer diagnoses, but is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths among American women. It’s relatively uncommon in the black community, but as is the case with most cancers, it’s more deadly when it affects us. Black women are often diagnosed in the disease’s later stages and are twice as likely as white women to die from it. With an overall five-year survival rate of 46%, it’s easy to see why the outcomes are more often than not unfavorable.

However, the more research I did, the more women I uncovered beating the odds––such as Barbara Mason, an 18-year survivor from South Carolina; Mary Jackson Scroggins, a 12-year survivor from New York; Kia Riddick-Taylor, a casting director in Florida who has been cancer-free for just over one year; and Sophia Carre, a seven-year survivor in Washington, D.C. These women all had stories like mine. They all sought treatment for seemingly innocuous conditions: bloating, digestive problems, and sudden weight loss or gain––all classic symptoms of ovarian cancer.
This disease has been mistakenly referred to as a “silent killer” because it was once thought to be asymptomatic. But doctors are now realizing that most ovarian cancer patients suffer from gastrointestinal problems at some point before their diagnoses.

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