Larissa Ienna

Larissa Ienna

"You can't control how you go." This is what I've been told by countless people since my diagnosis. Weeks before my 39th birthday, I was diagnosed with stage 3C ovarian cancer. At the time, I thought I had months to live, and told my husband this.  All I could think about was leaving my 7-year-old daughter. I could not imagine missing all the stages of her magical life. I just assumed I'd see her graduate high-school and college, walk her down the aisle with my husband, meet my grandchildren and see the wonderful woman I helped raise. I now face doing all, some or none of these things.  No amount of crying, wishing, yearning or begging can change my diagnosis. The cancer may or may not kill me. It may or may not kill me in a few years, 30 years, or not at all. But I am forced to face this elephant now, not in my 60's, 70's or 80's as I thought. Now. 

My symptoms started with fatigue in December 2016. I remember feeling so tired but chalked it up to being a busy person. By March 2017, I developed abdominal bloating, constipation, diarrhea, painful periods, anxiety and a fatigue that's indescribable. I'm a nurse practitioner, and self-diagnosed and rationalized my symptoms. I blamed my diet, vitamins, dairy, endometriosis, and even considered insulin resistance as a cause for my distended abdomen. Despite daily exercise and healthy eating, my abdomen grew.  

I asked for a referral to a gastroenterologist (GI). My best friend had recently recovered from rectal cancer, and I was worried. I saw the GI doctor in May 2017. During the physical exam, I could see the brief fear in his eyes when I experienced pain when he palpated my pelvis. I had no family history of cancer, but somehow knew deep inside that something was amiss. I was scared.  On June 2nd I had an abdominal ultrasound and due to an "abnormality," they had to add on a STAT (or urgent) pelvic ultrasound. Nobody would tell me what was going on, except I had enlarged ovaries and a cyst. Obviously, I googled this as I was getting the ultrasound, as my rationality left. Ovarian cancer was the first thing that popped up. This was on a Friday.

I had to wait until Monday to be called with results, which was torture. My gynecologist called me Monday morning.  I begged her to tell me it wasn't cancer.  She assured me that the ultrasound showed enlarged ovaries, a large endometrioma and no cancer. "You don't fit the picture of ovarian cancer."  By chance she ordered a CA-125 blood test, which I had drawn that same day.

The following day on June 6th, I received the CA-125 results at work. It was supposed to be normal. It was supposed to be endometriosis. I had a full panel of patients scheduled and started crying. I knew.  My co-workers took me to the ER for a CT scan and my husband met me there. The emergency doctor assured me "we never diagnose cancer in the ER." I knew though. The doctor came in crying and handed me the CT scan report.

I immediately left my body.  I called my mom who was traveling in Mexico and gave her the news. 

Fifteen minutes later, I saw an amazing Gynecologic Oncologist and surgery was scheduled for the following morning ---- not 12 hours after my diagnosis.  The surgery lasted a little over one hour and the cancer "peeled off."  I had a hysterectomy, oophorectomy, my omentum was removed and I was optimally debulked.  The Gyn Onc told my family after surgery that this could be "curative."  This gave us all hope that we didn't have the day before surgery.  I realize how fortunate I was to have such a quick surgery after diagnosis, as this is not always the norm. 

After a surgery that left me with 38 staples, I had to do my best to heal before starting a double regimen of chemotherapy in my IV and IP ports. I had three weeks. Three weeks to go from working as a nurse practitioner, doing a boot camp daily and being an independent and carefree woman/mom/wife/daughter, to living in this new world I did not want, nor ask for. 

I had trouble grasping my diagnosis and the implications surrounding it.  At the time, I could not connect curative with ovarian cancer.  I had trouble believing my Gyn Onc and made her repeatedly tell me that there was a chance that I could live with No Evidence of Disease (NED) for my lifetime. 

Thankfully, a friend from high-school got me in touch with Diane O'Connor from the Ovarian Cancer Alliance. Becki was assigned as my mentor, and between Diane and Becki, I had an instant support system with real women who had gone through a similar experience. They visited me during a chemotherapy session and showed me their own surgical scars.  It hit me that I wasn't alone, and more importantly they were still living! My hope blossomed. 

After six rounds of double chemo, with my amazing husband and mother by my side every session, I am considered NED.  I hope to God that this ugly cancer never shows it's face again. I knew from the start that I wanted to participate in a study and was fortunate to be a candidate for a PARP inhibitor study.  I'm so hopeful that this drug class will benefit not only me, but all women and reduce or even diminish recurrence rates.  Plus, the extra monitoring gives me a sense of relief. 

I'm constantly asked what I've learned from this experience.  I cannot answer that, but I can say what I'm actively seeking for my life.  I'm actively learning to be positive and grateful every day and choosing to live in the moment. I'm practicing gratitude. I'm grateful for my medical team, my supportive family, the drug study and that I was given a "curative" prognosis. No matter how much time I may have, I want to wake up every morning and think of ways I can make the world a better place. If my story helps just one woman, I will be eternally grateful. I want to get the message out that ovarian cancer is not just a cancer of "older women" as our medical community and society seem to believe. There is no typical face for this cancer, and I am here as proof.

Editor's Note: Larissa, who lives in Portland with her husband and daughter, loves to travel. One month after the conclusion of her chemotherapy, she went to the Dominican Republic and then on a cruise. This winter, she traveled to Mexico with her husband. Larissa is grateful for her family including her "cheerleader" mom and husband who accompanied her to every treatment, made sure she ate, was hydrated, and exercised. Larissa's dad watched her daughter, and he and her brother cooked meals. "They are amazing!" she said. Friends jumped in with meals, gift cards and help with childcare; Larissa's in-laws came down to watch her daughter several times. Her mother-in-law, who's an artist in Bellingham, gave her a wonderful painting she created. Mostly though, Larissa's daughter kept her spirit going and is "the best thing that's ever happened to me."