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December 3, 2009 – Vol. 4 • No. 4
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Young survivor shares her story

The moment of discovery occurred when Chana Garcia was having an ultrasound performed on her abdomen. She had been complaining for months about discomfort and indigestion and a strange gurgling sound coming from her stomach. But her doctors couldn’t find anything.

She thought the problems were the result of a recent trip to Mexico where she admits that she might have had a few too many glasses of wine or roadside tacos or even some of the contaminated water. What was odd, she recalls, is that she was losing weight and feeling bloated at the same time.

For two months her gastroenterologist, a specialist in diseases of the digestive tract, could not find the source of her discomfort. The ultrasound eventually marked the start of her diagnosis.

It was the technician’s response that got Garcia’s attention. “She kept clicking away over the same spot — as if something looked bizarre,” she said.

When a transvaginal ultrasound — a pelvic ultrasound used to examine a woman’s reproductive organs — was recommended, Garcia knew she required prior approval from her insurance carrier. But when they opted to perform the procedure at no charge, “I knew something was wrong,” she said.

Garcia still remembers the technician’s parting words. “Good luck," the tech said. “You’re going to be OK.”

At that point, panic set in. As a 33-year-old African American woman, ovarian cancer is not a likely condition. But her test results confirmed an exception to the norm.

Garcia had two large masses — one the size of a softball — blocking her ovaries. A subsequent blood test for CA125, a protein found in greater concentration in ovarian cancer cells, was extremely high.

Instead of a normal reading of less than 35, her results were over 1000, according to Garcia. Experts maintain that a reading greater than 65 in combination with a pelvic mass reveals cancer in about 90 percent of the cases.

She finally got the word after additional tests — she had Stage IIIC ovarian cancer, which meant that the disease had spread to both ovaries and had infiltrated lymph nodes.

“At first,” Garcia, a New York-based author, would later write, “I was in disbelief, then shock. After speaking with my surgeon about plans to undergo a full hysterectomy and learning that this would make it impossible for me to have children of my own, an overwhelming sadness set in. Its one thing to choose not to have children; it’s another to have the choice taken from you.”

For Garcia, the diagnosis was even more depressing. “To make matters worse,” she wrote, “my boyfriend and I had 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 to anger.”

Garcia was dazed but undeterred. “I can do this,” she said. “I can kick this.”

She was on a mission to survive. She found out everything she could about the disease, but what she learned was not good. “It does not have a favorable outcome,” she said. “It’s depressing.”

Fortunately for Garcia, she comes from a family of survivors — her mother overcame breast cancer and her sister Hodgkin disease, a type of lymphoma.

Garcia chose Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, for her treatment. Within two weeks of her diagnosis she underwent surgery — a complete hysterectomy and lymph node removal.

The surgery confirmed what she already knew — she had Stage IIIC ovarian cancer. Eventually, she started on six rounds of intravenous and intraperitoneal chemotherapy, the injection of medication directly into the abdomen through a catheter.

Garcia’s struggle is not quite through. Four months after the first round of treatments, the gurgling sounds — which she now recognizes as fluid buildup — returned and her worst fears were realized. The doctors found residual cancer.

She then underwent an additional seven cycles of chemotherapy that was designed to cut off the blood supply of the cancerous cells.

Garcia says that it’s been easier for her the second time around and is still going strong. She continues to write and blog and has told her story in the September issue of Black Enterprise. “We think we’re [black women] exempt,” she warned. “It’s important to be your own advocate.”

To say her life has changed is an understatement. As she wrote in Black Enterprise, “Hearing my doctor utter three mundane words, “Everything looks good,” is like winning a victory lap — the result of enduring dozens of inch-long needles that have ruined my veins, the impending nausea, and the countless days I was too sick to get out of bed…”

And she has good advice for those who think they are immune. “Of equal importance,” she wrote, “is a patient’s personal vigilance; paying attention to your body, making sure you keep regular checkups, asking your doctor questions, seeking a second or third opinion, and speaking up when you suspect something is wrong. Personal vigilance is the most important lesson I learned from this experience.”

To listen to Chana, a spokesperson for the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, click here.


Chana Garcia (left), who works with Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, is shown with actress Kelly Washington (right), a spokesperson for L’Oreal Color of Hope, L’Oreal Paris’ campaign for ovarian cancer awareness.
Photo: Courtesy of Chana Garcia

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