TodayJune 24, 2021

Hard Lessons Learned from Cancer

The day I went in to see my new gynecologist for my annual pap smear, I was in good spirits and felt healthy.  During the manual exam, he felt a large tumor in my abdomen and asked if my previous gynecologist had noticed any lump there the year before.  I said, “No.”  He then sent me to get a blood test and an ultrasound.  I left his office puzzled, because he said little and I didn’t know what questions to ask him.  When we met a week later, he informed me that I had ovarian cancer.  What? Cancer again? How?

Since I had survived breast cancer three years prior, I knew what it meant to have cancer.  Still, I did not fully comprehend the gravity of an ovarian cancer diagnosis until I researched it.

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), “…Ovarian cancer is the leading cause of death among the gynecologic cancers and the fourth leading cause of cancer death in women in the United States. Ovarian cancer is one-tenth as common as breast cancer but three times as lethal. The incidence of ovarian cancer is age related and is generally a disease of postmenopausal women. Malignant epithelial tumors are most common between the ages of 40 and 60 years.”

Unlike the utter shock and fear I felt when I was told I had breast cancer, this time I was livid!  This time, I clearly saw cancer as a vicious bully that wanted me to feel weak, afraid and, ultimately, die a broken woman.  Well, my rage fueled my determination to beat cancer once again.  Empowered with the maximum strengths I discovered during my breast cancer journey i.e., perspective, positivity, initiative, choice, hope, humor, humility, objectivity, flexibility and emotional self-regulation, I pulled out all the stops to break cancer’s hold on me.  

The battle was fierce — different from what I experienced with breast cancer — and I struggled.  For treatment, I had a radical hysterectomy, omentectomy, bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, bilateral paraaortic lymphadenectomy, plus six rounds of chemotherapy, with complications.  However positive and strong I tried to be, the many side effects e.g., pain, fatigue, neuropathy, alopecia, hypothermia, nausea, constipation, swelling, lung problems, mouth & tongue changes, bone pain & stiffness, weight loss, etc. were constant reminders that I was weak and “no match for cancer.” 

The chaos that cancer, the bully, was creating inside my mind with all the horrible, negative thoughts of being damaged and dying caused a burning pressure of grief and hopelessness in my guts, together with searing, intense aches of panic and self-pity crushing my chest.  It was almost unbearable!  Fighting to keep cancer from taking over my entire life was much more mentally and emotionally exhausting than it was physical.

One day, when I was so fatigued, sharp pains attacked, deeply penetrating my nerves, muscles and bones. I was seriously debating between whether to give up or not give up.   Then, suddenly, it dawned on me that I didn’t have to give up … I just had to let go of trying so hard to control my circumstances.  I didn’t have to fight and be strong all the time … I just had to accept my humanity and allow myself a pity-party, every once in a while; just “just don’t unpack and live there.”  Doing so actually recharged my drive and gave me freedom to breathe! 

I reflected on that choice and realized that I actually possessed more strengths than I knew.  They were gratitude, faith, acceptance, adaptability and self-love.

I replaced every negative thought with multiple positive ones.  When dark thoughts threatened my thinking, I created a special gratitude routine where I would thank God for everything I could think of, see, feel or touch, like the floor, the table, the electrical outlet, the window, my toes, my fingers, my nose, the glass, the dust, the birds, the rug, the wall, the stapler, etc.  I also kept in mind the fact that there were many others suffering conditions much worse than mine, especially innocent children and those who don’t have access to medical treatment as I do. 

Feeling gratitude was refreshingly different!  Learning to accept my circumstances and make the most of what I have … to let go and let God, amidst all the turmoil … was honestly, not easy, but it lifted me up!  And so, I practiced as much as I needed to.  To survive, I knew that I had to drastically change my thinking and strategy in battling cancer.  I felt myself creating this crazy, positive energy that enabled me to turn my focus away from all the negative; all that which I could not control.  With dogged determination, I refused to waste my precious time and energy on anything that didn’t benefit my health and well-being.  The moment I refused to waste my precious time worrying about cancer was the moment cancer released its hold on me.   

The experience was surreal!  It was as if I was going through an out-of-body experience, which gave me a depth of freedom, peace and joy that I never thought was possible!  Yes, my body was still weak and in miserable pain, but my spirit and determination to create my own joyful possibilities in life were stronger … and cancer be damned!

At the El Camino Hospital Cancer Center in Mountain View (CA) where I was being treated, I engaged with a lot of other cancer patients, many whose cancers had metastasized.  When they shared their individual experiences, I found that they, like me, were frustrated with having to navigate the confusing cancer maze without a central resource to guide them e.g., the “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” book that pregnant women have as a resource.  Despite my weakened physical state and chemo brain, I was so inspired to create that central resource manual.  After conducting lengthy, in-depth interviews with numerous cancer survivors, I published Been There, Done That: Practical Tips & Wisdom from Cancer Survivors for Cancer Patients. 

Offering more than information on how to survive cancer, this manual contains the personal profiles of 19 amazing cancer survivors (between 21 to 92 years of age), their tips and practical advice on how to cope with possible side effects, how to deal with medical treatments, procedures and accessories, how to adapt to the many changes in daily living while going through treatment (e.g., relationships, finances, children, work, driving, sexual intimacy, traveling, finances, the law, insurance, pets, moving around, sleeping), wrestling with natural negative emotions, a 50+ page glossary of terms, learning about survivorship, tips for the caregiver, a guide on how to support someone with cancer, cancer-fighting nutrition and exercise and awesome motivations, humor, and ideas on how to gain strength and thrive in life, despite cancer.  It is truly a work of love, which I hope to, one day, be able to give away to every cancer patient in need. 

It’s been almost five years since I was declared NED (no evidence of disease).  Mine was one of the 15% of ovarian cancers that was diagnosed before the cancer spread outside the ovaries.  I have my gynecologist to thank for being thorough in his exam of my abdomen, unlike the gynecologist before him.  This is why I am a HUGE proponent of annual and thorough pap smears.  I also cannot stress enough the importance of you being your own advocate and keeping yourself informed.  Even if you’re unsure of what to ask or if your doctor is not approachable, say whatever’s on your mind and ask for clarification.  Remember that the role of your doctors and nurses is to take care of your needs.  Keeping you in the dark, information-wise, does not serve your needs.  So, please do not hesitate to ask. 

Most importantly, if you notice the symptoms of bloating, pelvic or stomach pain, trouble eating or feeling full quickly and peeing frequently, and your doctor does not think it’s ovarian cancer, but YOU think it may be, insist on getting a CA-125 blood test for ovarian cancer.  Yes, you can do that.  However well-intentioned doctors are, you know your body more than they do.  Listening to your body and standing up for yourself will save your life!

I still get “scanxiety” (nervousness around cancer tests) and I still have “canceritis” (the fear of getting cancer again).  C’est la vie!  They are par for the course.  What is most important is living my awesome possibilities in life every single day, using my energy for good, not wasting it on what is beyond my control.  As the English philosopher Francis Bacon once said, “Begin doing what you want to do now. We are not living in eternity. We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand – and melting like a snowflake…”

Amor Traceski, breast & ovarian cancer survivor

Amor Traceski Bio

After Amor Traceski survived breast cancer in 2013 and ovarian cancer in 2016, she penned the cancer manual Been There, Done That: Practical Tips & Wisdom from Cancer Survivors for Cancer Patients to provide a central source of information for cancer patients, so that they can better cope with their diagnosis and navigate the confusing and overwhelming world of cancer.  She finds fulfillment in being a cancer life coach and motivational speaker.  Prior to her involvement in the cancer community, Amor’s professional career spanned over 20 years in corporate human resources management.  She has been an active board member of her community’s Lions Club service organization and is an auxiliary member serving cancer patients at the Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital in California.  Amor is also a human resources consultant at SmallSmallBusiness.com.  When not busy volunteering, Amor enjoys both travel time and quiet time with her life partner, Bill in their Sierra Foothills home in Penn Valley.  For more information, check out www.amortraceski.com.

Lou Ann Hammond

Lou Ann Hammond is the CEO of Carlist and Driving the Nation. She is the co-host of Real Wheels Washington Post carchat every Friday morning and is the Automotive, energy correspondent for The John Batchelor Show and a Contributor to Automotive Electronics magazine headquartered in Korea. Hammond is a founding member of the Women's World Car of the Year #WWCOTY, and board member of the Women in Automotive.

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