How Continued Surveillance Saved My Life
By: Sally Cotlar, Sharsheret Peer Supporter
I had just turned 6 when my mother died of breast cancer at the age of 35. Breast cancer has always been part of my universe. I even had my first mammogram when I was only 23 years-old. It wasn’t until many years later that I found out that I was also at risk for ovarian cancer.
After doing some family research and learning that my maternal great-grandmother died of breast cancer at the age of 51, I decided to undergo genetic testing. I tested positive for the BRCA1 mutation. Although I was disappointed with the result, I wasn’t surprised because my mother was so young when she had cancer, but my geneticist thought I would be negative. When I asked her why, she said, “because you have not had cancer yet”. Over the next weeks and months, the impact of learning that I carried the mutation increasingly weighed heavily on me. I was concerned about my future as well as those of my three children, who each have a 50% chance of inheriting the mutation. Over the years I have learned to accept the possibilities and I try to be as proactive as possible.
I had a prophylactic oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries) and removal of my fallopian tubes. I was happy to not have to worry about developing ovarian cancer. Two years later, I was feeling great and decided that it was time to have a prophylactic mastectomy. I really wasn’t looking forward to the surgery, but thought I would be relieved to not have to worry about breast cancer as well. During my pre-operative physical, my doctor found a large, hard lymph node in my inguinal canal (the crease between the leg and hip). It was diagnosed as primary peritoneal cancer, which is essentially ovarian cancer. I couldn’t believe I had cancer because I felt so good and had what I thought would be preventative surgery. Unfortunately, prophylactic oophorectomies don’t prevent ovarian cancer 100% of the time because the lining of the peritoneal cavity, where the ovaries sit, is similar to the lining of the ovaries.
I have been in remission since 2003 and I have never had breast cancer or a mastectomy, although I am again considering the mastectomy. What I’ve learned from having cancer is that it is life-changing. It’s as if you have entered into another world, a world filled with new terms, doctors, tests, scans, and often, surgery and chemotherapy. On a positive note, there is also a new community you have become part of. I have met so many wonderful people who have enriched my life and made me a stronger and better person. Joining Sharsheret and speaking with a Peer Supporter can help unravel the mysteries involved with ovarian cancer. I look forward to serving as a Sharsheret Peer Supporter and speaking with those touched by ovarian cancer so that I can share the hope and knowledge that I was blessed to receive during my cancer journey.