Cancer survivor’s advice: pay attention to your body
Ovarian cancer’s most common symptoms
• Feeling constantly bloated
• A swollen tummy
• Discomfort in your tummy or pelvic area
• Feeling full quickly when eating, or loss of appetite
• Needing to urinate more often or more urgently than usual
Source: National Health Service (England)
So much in life depends on your outlook. Within weeks of her father Eugene’s death from cancer in April 2017, Kim Hendrickson learnt she had the dreaded disease.
Chemotherapy and surgery transformed her but then doctors said it appeared the cancer that started in her ovaries was recurring.
The 54-year-old gets the results from her latest tests today.
Dead set against more chemo should the need arise, she was sunny when we met on Monday, optimistic that the cancer that claimed her father wouldn’t also take her.
“I’m a Christian and I believe that God wasn’t caught by surprise,” she said. “He has a plan and I trust Him. I’m prepared for whatever news comes. I can’t change anything, whatever the result. I’m alive and my plan is to continue to live.”
The diagnosis took her by surprise. She’d felt “bloated and uncomfortable” for some time but her focus was on her father, whose bladder cancer had metastasised.
“That’s the lot of a woman,” she said. “So I played it down. I was to take an enema to try and flush it out but I remember going to the bathroom and it hurt. My sister said, ‘If you have pain that usually means something is wrong’.”
It was only after her father died, at the end of April, that she made an appointment to see her GP. “She did an internal examination and I guess she felt something that concerned her, but she just said that I need an ultrasound as soon as possible and asked if I could go that afternoon. Usually I go to the doctor and there’s nothing wrong. Usually it’s not a big deal.”
Because she didn’t think there was any real problem she put off the exam for two days.
“I’d already been out of work for a couple of hours and I don’t like to be away for a long time, inconveniencing other people,” the supervisor at Esso Service Station at Collector’s Hill said.
“The morning of the ultrasound, they called me a few times just to remind me about the appointment.
“They said they wanted to get me some results by the weekend so we would know what was happening and I could get some relief from the pain.
“I was confused as I only felt a little discomfort. Even when my doctor told me to come to talk to her about the results [immediately] after the ultrasound, I still wasn’t alarmed.”
On her own, Ms Hendrickson was ill-prepared for what came next. “She didn’t say it was cancer. She said I had a long journey ahead of me but it’s beatable.
“She said, ‘I wish someone was with you. I need you to see a gynaecologist this afternoon because we really need to move.’ She still hadn’t told me what was wrong so it was then I said, ‘I have cancer?’”
It was only after an appointment with a gynaecologist was made for that day and Ms Hendrickson promised the doctor she’d get her son, Derrick, to go with her, that the tears came.
“Even though my dad had cancer, I wasn’t thinking that I might have it,” she said. “I left and called my son. I could barely get the words out.”
The silence was deafening.
“He was crying,” she said. “From a little child, if I cried, he would cry. I knew he would take it hard. I told him I had an appointment that afternoon. He said, ‘I’ll be there. Wherever you have to go I’ll be there’.”
Her eldest sister, Tammy, shared the news with their three siblings and other family members and joined Ms Hendrickson, her son and her nephew, Damon, at the gynaecologist’s office.
“The mood was kind of sombre. Everyone was trying to process the news. We had just gone through it with grandpa. We were just trying to get over that and then we got another slap.”
A CT scan and a biopsy confirmed she had Stage 3 ovarian cancer. The tumour had metastasised to other parts of the abdominal cavity.
Ms Hendrickson was warned she faced six rounds of chemotherapy and surgery.
Hair loss, pain and weakness in hands and feet from nerve damage and diarrhoea were on the list of side effects. “I immediately made dietary changes. I cut out sugar and dairy and cut starch to a minimum. Meats, I didn’t eat much anyway.”
Her diet of vegetables, smoothies and supplements combined with chemotherapy saw her “drop 30lbs in two or three months”.
Now at 127lbs, she went from 170lbs to about 112lbs over the course of her treatment.
“What’s normal is three rounds of chemo then surgery and then three more rounds of chemo,” Ms Hendrickson explained. “I started my chemo in June or at the beginning of July and did it every three weeks for four or five hours.
“I ended up doing all six rounds of chemo before surgery because my body was responding well.
“I never had nausea but I lost my sense of taste. Because the drug is platinum-based, it makes your mouth taste metallic; it helped that a friend told me that plastic was better than metal cutlery.
“I forced myself to eat even though I was not hungry because I needed strength to get through it. I also made sure I exercised. Some days I was short of breath, but I pushed myself through it.”
Still, the treatment took her hair, which had been “down her back”; it also damaged her peripheral nerves.
“After the first round of chemo, I had diarrhoea, I had thrush and I lost my hair. I said, ‘I’m not doing this any more’ but a PALS nurse that I knew from primary school encouraged me, and so we continued the journey.
“My sister, Deborah, was at every chemo treatment — every third Thursday; my son was there whenever he could get away from work.”
Her son co-ordinated with her insurance company and arranged for her surgery at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston.
“I just had to find out from him when to show up at the airport. I will ever be grateful for him for that.”
The two of them left Bermuda for Massachusetts on October 9 with Ms Hendrickson’s sister, Deborah, who insisted on packing a blender because “the smoothies still had to happen”.
Three days later she was in surgery.
“I had top-notch service from everybody in the team,” she said. “They always went the extra to try to make it as smooth as possible. The doctor said I woke up with a smile on my face.
“I had a full hysterectomy and an appendectomy and they took out some of the fatty lining of my stomach.
“They got 98 per cent of the tumour and wanted me to do more chemo and I said no. I said I’ll leave that 2 per cent to God and see how it goes.”
She returned home October 20 and dumped her pain killers. By the end of the first week, she was out walking.
“They told me to listen to my body, but that I could walk as far as my body was able to walk. There was a little discomfort for the first five weeks and then after that, just a tightness.”
Pleased with her progress, doctors gave her the go-ahead to return to work the day after the US Thanksgiving holiday.
“People asked if I was doing half-days,” she said. “I said, ‘The form doesn’t say half-days’.”
Check-ups with her gynaecologist and oncologist were scheduled for every three months. The first “was great”.
“They saw absolutely nothing and felt nothing,” she said. “The next was at the end of May and they said it appears [the cancer] is recurring.
“They wanted me to start chemo and I said, ‘Nope’. I’m in the process of researching to see what else is out there.
“Chemo and radiation are the leading things offered to people even though sometimes people feel better without them [and doctors know they won’t help].
“Chemotherapy doesn’t cure cancer, it just shrinks the tumours. It’s hard for me to just accept that giving myself poison is the best option.
“When I found out I had cancer, it was too close to my dad’s death for me to take a whole lot of time to figure things out, but now I will pursue all other options.”
She feels fortunate to have a village “walking the journey with [her]”.
“I have a lot to be thankful for,” Ms Hendrickson said. “I know my family will do whatever is necessary to keep me around.
“I also started a WhatsApp chat with people who I wasn’t regularly in touch with before, but they were important to me at some point.
“They’ve been praying for me. They’re waiting with me for my result [today].”
Although speaking publicly isn’t something she would usually do, her hope is that her story will help someone else.
“Pay attention to your body,” she said. “I went for my regular check-ups, so I didn’t understand.
“I kept asking, ‘What did I miss to be at Stage 3?’ They said there’s no test regularly done for ovarian cancer.
“If you’re feeling uncomfortable, if you’re feeling bloated, check the symptoms. If you’re having all of them, it might be worth getting checked out.
“All it takes it the right environment — stress, being overworked. Get balance in your life.
“Things we do and don’t think about all can play a part in bodily health.
“It’s important to take care of you and don’t ignore things that are not going away.”
• Bermuda Cancer and Health Centre is giving a free talk on ovarian cancer tonight at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute. Christopher Price of the Bermuda Hospitals Board and Susana Campos of Brigham and Women’s Cancer Centre will speak from 5.30pm to 7.30pm. RSVP: firstname.lastname@example.org
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