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This Sunday, March 11th 2012 will mark the 8th anniversary of my wife's passing from this horrible disease. She was 36 years old and we were two weeks shy of our 11th wedding anniversary and it was only three weeks after our daughter turned 6.
Christmas Eve was always one of Cee-Cee's favorite days but Christmas Eve in 1999 was different. Her stomach was bothering her and she didn't get to enjoy the usual feast that my family prepared. We didn't really think it was anything to worry about and with all the Y2K stuff a week away, we were pre-occupied.
The discomfort continued after the New Year and she went to the doctor for an ultrasound where they saw a large cyst and we made an appointment to have it removed a week or so later.
January 28th, 2000 was a crisp, clear day. A little warm for January, but the bare trees and low sun reminded you of the time of year all the same.
When we arrived at St. Vincent’s hospital, we were laughing and joking as we usually did, that was the one thing that was always present in our relationship—laughter. We settled into a room and waited. The doctor came in and spoke with us, we kissed good-bye and Cee-Cee went in while I went into the waiting room. It was a little after 1 in the afternoon.
The waiting room was pretty crowded and there was a TV on in the corner, I was reading a book and barely noticed the time slipping by. As darkness began to fall and the waiting room began to empty, I started to feel an uneasiness. When the 5 o'clock news started on the TV, I was the only one left and was now concerned. The Doctor appeared in the doorway and he was white as a ghost. "We need to talk," he said to me and we proceeded down an empty hallway. I had no idea what I was about to hear but I knew it couldn't be good.
When he told me Cee-Cee had Ovarian cancer and that it had spread outside of her pelvic area, I felt like someone hit me in the head with a brick. My knees buckled and I felt like a lost child. He gave me some options and I said that I would rather discuss it with her. He pointed me to a phone but I couldn't dial, I couldn't even speak. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs but I could do nothing but cry. I finally picked up the phone and called my mother and Cee-Cee's sister Pat.
When Cee-Cee came to a few hours later (I think, time became a fog at that point) I was by her side. She knew immediately that something was wrong.
"What's wrong with me?" she asked.
"What are you talking about?" I answered without being able to look her in the eyes.
"I can see the clock, I know something is wrong."
The doctor was nearby, we both knew that I would not be able to deliver the news. When he finished explaining to her, Cee-Cee smiled (she had the most beautiful smile) at me and I saw a strength that I had never seen before and that I would never have. She said she would fight this and that she would win and she wanted to call her family. What still amazes me is that a still half dazed Cee-Cee called her family and assured them that she would fight and she would be okay.
The surgery was the following Tuesday and because of her age they were able to be aggresive and attack every cell that they could see and even some they weren't sure of. Chemo was next and Cee-Cee once again took control, shaving her own head so that the disease wouldn't control her. Six months later, she was feeling good and it looked like she was going into remission.
They always told us that if it was coming back, it would probably do so within two years. Almost two years to the day it came back. Cee-Cee once again was strong and defiant. She had the surgery and treatments and kept smiling the entire time. She even comforted the new patients while she was getting chemo, helping them deal with it as well.
Six months later, it was back again and this time it wasn't going away no matter what. When the doctor told me that she probably wouldn't make it another year I locked myself in the basement of the pizzeria that I owned at the time and broke everything I could get my hands on. I threw things, I screamed and yelled and then cried. When my parents got to me I was slumped against the wall.
The next few months were brutal, how could I look at her smiling and fighting, even while she was wasting away, smiling and fighting and I knew the end was inevitable and coming? That was the most difficult time in my life. I was resigned to what was happening, I was trying to prepare myself and she would still never give up. It was so hard to look at her knowing this.
Thursday, March 11th, 2004 at approximately 10:40 PM, Cee-Cee took her last breath and I was by her side. The most difficult thing that I have ever done in my life was the next morning, telling our 6 year old daughter that Mommy went to Heaven the night before.
The wake was on the Saturday and Sunday that followed and the crowd was so large that the funeral home opened three rooms for us. I was overwhelmed at the amount of people that came to say good-bye to her. Thinking about it now, I shouldn't have been surprised. Cee-Cee's smile and her faith, strength and courage touched many people.
In the year that followed, I was consumed by anger and it has taken me eight years and this site to finally allow me to air out Cee-Cee's story. I truly believe that she watches over me and every thing I do, I believe she is always still with me and helped me through that dark year and helped me get my life back together. I still see her smile everyday, I miss her and not a day goes by that I don't think about her.
Staten Island, NY
"Some 27 years ago, at the age of 66, my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Because she refused to go to a gynacologist she was being diagnosed with constipation at a hospital in Riverhead, NY & was sent home from there with a strong laxative. Her stomach became quite distended as a result of the fluid build-up from the cancer. She underwent a total hysterectomy, but by then it was too late. She was put on a regimen of Chemotherapy. Unfortunately, it didn't work. As the surgeon predicted, she passed away within that year. Ovarian cancer is a silent killer. Please ladies, go for your annual gynecological exams, or if you experience bloating, or sometimes even abdominal discomfort frequently, please get checked right away. It could mean your life. My aunt & a cousin, no blood relation to any of my family, were also diagnosed with ovarian cancer, but luckily, it was caught early enough for a total cure & they're still alive today, proving regular exams will save your life."
"I was diagnosed December 24, 2007. Had surgery on January 4, 2008. I had
just retired in Aug 2007, bought a new house. Then my world stopped for awhile.
I was just going into the hospital for exploratory surgery. They could not
find my left ovary on the sonogram. I was only to be there for about 3
days. I stayed for 8 days and was told I had ovarian cancer. Well, I knew no
one who had this, so I had no idea what I had. I started chemo on Feb. 4,
2008. Was encouraged to get on the research program of 22 treatments. I did
not want to do this, but was more or less talked into it. After the first 6
treatments, it was supposed to be just the research drug Avastin. In
December 2008, I had a scan and my lymph nodes were enlarged, so he put me
back on another cycle of a different drug. In April of this year I had 2
clean scans and have been off treatment since. I go in September for another
scan and it will determine what happens with that one.
In January 2009 my husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He took 42
treatments of radiation.
I still have some neuropathy in my feet. Have just a gem of a doctor and
team of nurses. But over all doing well."
"My name is Cindy Swift and I am a survivor. Our Labrador (now 13 months old) saved my life. I was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer at age 41. On Mother’s Day, May 10, 2009 our Labrador puppy tripped me and I landed on my left kneecap. One week later I went to the emergency room with severe calf pain and was diagnosed with a DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis – blood clot – the DVT was caused by the cancer) and also put on crutches for an ankle injury (result of the fall one week prior to the visit to the emergency room). While beginning treatment for the DVT and waiting to see an orthopedic surgeon for my ankle I developed a fever and a cough that wouldn’t go away (the cough had been progressively getting worse for about 3 months). Since the cough wouldn’t go away I requested further testing – my internist ordered a chest CT Scan (June 22nd). On June 22, 2009 the doctors found an 8-10 cm mass on my right ovary and I was told that “it does not look good and is most likely Ovarian Cancer.” My blood work a couple of days later showed my CA125 levels to be over 400. On my second visit to my oncologist I was admitted to the hospital because of running high fevers that just would not go away. On July 7, 2009 I had a complete hysterectomy and spent a total of 12 days in the hospital. I have since received 8 chemo treatments (last one on January 7, 2010) and hope to have a full recovery (first follow-up CT Scan is scheduled for late February 2010). I am very fortunate in being diagnosed in Stage IIa – my cancer was only on my right ovary and had not spread anywhere else. My symptoms were very vague and really only included abdominal bloating and some random cramping (not severe). As we look back we found that my symptoms also included the fever and cough – the fever and cough went away almost immediately after my surgery.
After my diagnosis my oncologist had me see a genetic counselor to further investigate why I have Ovarian Cancer. I tested negative for the BRCA 1 & BRCA 2 genes and am waiting for possible further testing for Lynch Syndrome (hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC)) – people with Lynch syndrome have an increased risk of cancers of the stomach, small intestine, liver, gallbladder ducts, upper urinary tract, brain, skin, and prostate. Women with this disorder also have a high risk of cancer of the endometrium (lining of the uterus) and ovaries. We have also discovered that there has been a family history of some of these particular cancers as well.
I know that God has been with me every step of the way and will continue to be there each and every day. "
"Sitting in my home office writing this, I look around the room that was once Gail's nursery... wonderful memories of bringing this precious little bundle home from the hospital ... the white wicker bassinette sitting just behind where my chair is now. Fast forward with me the pre-school years of being a stay at home mom, dancing across the kitchen floor with Gail standing on my socked feet, piano lessons, tricycles, lemonade stands, bicycles, Brownie scouts, cheerleading, band practice, ball games, children - then teenagers hanging out at our house. Thirty years of holidays, vacations, laughter, a few tears. A special mother/daughter relationship - a bond like no other... unconditional love.
Gail graduated from Silver Bluff High School with honors in 1994 and was attending USC in Columbia when she was diagnosed with ovarian cysts. The cysts were surgically removed and everything seemed perfectly normal for years. Gail continued attending college, transferring to USC-Aiken before graduating in 1999 (she jokingly said she was on the five-year plan). Gail worked at Publix in Aiken during college and her Target career began with the opening of the new store in Aiken shortly after graduation. "Abi" as she was called by her Target team, later made career moves to Charleston, Summerville, then Florence, SC.
While some women may have changed doctors for convenience after they moved, Gail trusted her doctor in Augusta and continued seeing her for yearly examinations. In 2005, when Gail was 29 years old, she wasn't feeling well and thought she had cysts again. At her next appointment she asked the doctor for a sonogram and was told that the pain she was having was from scar tissue from her earlier surgery and a sonogram wasn't necessary. Gail and I discussed this at length before she drove back to Florence - with Gail finally telling me, "but mom, she's the doctor".
The pain and discomfort did not go away. Gail went to a chiropractor near Florence for back pain - and had spa massages, too. Her paternal grandmother had recently been moved to an assisted living facility near Aiken and Gail desperately wanted to be close by to visit - so in the summer of 2006, she transferred from Target in Florence to the Aiken Target even though it meant stepping down from an executive position. She was finally nearby - close to family and friends and working five days a week and in retail THAT is practically unheard of. Everything was wonderful... and we were looking forward to the holidays already. No more rushed traveling to spend holidays or days off together. Gail settled in to the new job, enjoyed being within minutes of nieces and nephews, church, friends and family. She joined Curves - and was named their 'biggest loser' of inches and pounds her first month. Gail at times seemed tired, but she attributed that to the new job - at least that's what she told me. She went to a prompt care medical facility with back and body aches the week before her upcoming appointment. A friend and Target team member later told me that Gail was having extreme pain at work the weeks leading up to this next appointment. And I was unaware of the over the counter medications Gail was taking for upset stomach, etc.
In October 2006, four months after Gail moved back to Aiken, at what was scheduled as a routine annual physical, a “mass” was found. Within a week, Gail had major surgery - and the mass was soon diagnosed as small cell ovarian cancer, stage IIIc. Rounds of chemo quickly followed and I was thankful that, even though Gail kept her apartment in Aiken, she stayed with me during this time. Gail was able to focus solely on following doctor's orders and family members made sure she had what she wanted or needed. Her faith remained strong and she knew she'd "be ok" regardless of the outcome. Gail asked me one day, "What if the chemo doesn't work?" We discussed not being able to imagine what life would be like without the other one here... how difficult it would be... and that regardless of which of us went first, we'd save a place for the other one in Heaven. That may not have been the perfect answer - not that there is one - but I never expected the two of us to have a conversation like that. The bottom line was we knew that regardless of the outcome of this battle with cancer, we'd see each other again.
On February 14, 2007 -- less than four months after her annual checkup -- Gail, my only child, became one of the estimated 15,250 women who lost their battle with ovarian cancer in 2007. I had a choice - I could grieve myself to death or I could make something positive out of this horrible experience. I did what Gail would've done if the roles were reversed... I chose to make a difference in ovarian cancer awareness.
In April 2007 a Relay For Life team formed by family, friends and co-workers in Gail’s memory. Our team, Gail's Anatomy, celebrates those fighting cancer and those that have won the battle; we remember those that have passed; and we fight back by sponsoring ovarian cancer awareness events year round. The team has raised more than $20,000 for the American Cancer Society with all funds directed to ovarian cancer awareness. Ovarian cancer awareness events have been held at Washington Savannah River Company; Curves for Women; the Aiken Mall; URS Washington Division in Aiken; PowerCuts Salon & Spa; Target stores in Florence, Charleston, Mt. Pleasant, Summerville and Aiken, SC; the Town of Jackson, SC; USC-Aiken with the softball team (10/4/08 and 10/3/09) and the basketball teams (12/13/08 and 1/13/10); as well as Jackson Middle School, Midland Valley High School and Fox Creek High School. Other businesses have joined the awareness campaign, which include: Lamar Advertising (in Augusta, GA), Denise Jane Portrait Design, Innovative Solutions, Jim Hanna Sports, Necessary Arrangements, Up & Away on Laurens Street, Aiken Chamber of Commerce, and Newberry Hall in Aiken, South Carolina. URS Washington Division Headquarters in Boise, Idaho published an article in the Employee Communication newsletter during September (Ovarian Cancer Awareness month), which was distributed to their employees worldwide. Billboards focusing on ovarian cancer awareness are displayed during the month of September. This website was highlighted in the August 2009 CSRABereaved Parents newsletter to promote ovarian cancer awareness. Skirt! magazine featured ovarian cancer awareness in the 24/7 Q&A section of the September '09 issue and Augusta Oncology Associates staff wear our "Fight Like A Girl" t-shirts each week in support of ovarian cancer awareness!
Gail did everything right. She had gynecologic exams every year since she was 18 years old. She even went to the same doctor. Gail had none of the risk factors; there was no known family history of ovarian or breast cancer, but this horrible disease introduced itself to our family. Gail discovered after her diagnosis that she had all the symptoms of ovarian cancer except one. We both thought that a yearly physical and pap test would detect any potential female problems. We can't change the past but we can certainly make a difference now by taking steps to educate others. Don't let this happen to you. Pay attention to your body - you know yourself better than any one or any doctor. If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms, follow the recommendation of the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition and see your physician. Insist on a CA-125 blood test and a transvaginal sonogram. Early detection makes a difference... early detection saves lives. Together we can make a difference in the fight against ovarian cancer. Let's begin with you.
Thank you for reading Gail's story.
~Gail's mom, Debbie