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When Ovarian Cancer Hit My Family

We found out on Christmas Eve 2005 that my grandmother had ovarian cancer. My dad, brother and I had just gotten home from church when my mom called from the hospital's ER. She had taken Gram earlier in the day, when the back pain had gotten to be too much. "Mom," she'd murmured as my grandmother winced. "Want to go?" Every time she'd asked before, Gram's answer was a fervent "No."

That time, she'd simply nodded.

Hours later, the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach told me bad news was on its way. After my dad told us, I sat in the dark of the living room, staring at the twinkling garland on the Christmas tree.

Just before midnight, my mom came home. My dad met her at the door. I watched her collapse into his arms, and my world shattered as she did. It was such a jolt. I couldn't even wrap my brain around the suddenness. I knew life had changed already—but that was it, too: We hadn't known anything. My grandma hadn't been sick.

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"It's everywhere," my mom had said that night. "The doctors said it's everywhere."

How does cancer spread everywhere in two weeks? I tossed my Christmas best on the floor of my bedroom in a wrinkled pile. I threw on sweats. I climbed into bed. I said a quick prayer for my Gram's comfort and cried myself to sleep.

A little less than two months later, she passed.

Gram had been as close to a second mother to me as a woman can get. She stayed several days a week at our house after my grandpa died almost a decade earlier, and she had become my closest confidant as a teen. I spent afternoons sitting in her room, sharing the latest gossip and munching on Doritos. Just like that, those empty afternoons became reminders of the questions I'd never thought to ask and the things I'd never know.

I've spent a lot of time since then wondering and thinking about her cancer, and the events leading up to it, about not knowing. As it turned out, the disease had not been everywhere, as the doctor had initially said. There was, however, a soccer ball-sized mass in Gram's abdomen. The surgeon had removed the tumor. She said she had gotten it all, but my grandma didn't recover.

She was too weak, which was especially shocking given she was more active than any 80-year-old I'd ever met. She exercised several times a week. She made plans with friends to play cards and have lunch. She saw her grandkids. She traveled. She lived. Only two weeks before Christmas had she stopped, spending all of her time in our guest bedroom, where my mom brought her food and helped her move from chair to bed to bathroom. She was finally succumbing to the back pain caused by that cancerous mass. Until then, no one had known.

Except me. I figured out that I had known. I just didn't realize the information I held at the time.

I remember that day, about a year prior to her diagnosis. She was in her chair, and I was lying on the bed. We were watching Golden Girls and talking about girl stuff—teen dreams, most likely; school, boys, weddings. And at some point during our exchange, the tenor of our conversation changed. I'd mentioned something far off in the future."

Gram chuckled, and shook her head. "I'm not going to be around that much longer, Jen," she said, so casually you'd think she was asking me to pass the salt. "I don't want to be, even."

I sat up on the bed and looked at her, confused. I let the words fall into place in my head one more time, just to make sure she'd said it. "What do you mean?" When she didn't answer right away, I prodded. "Don't you want to see me graduate college? Get married? Have kids? Your great-grandkids?"

Ever a woman of faith, my grandmother looked me in the eye and said, "Whether I'm here or not, I will see all those things."

What was she saying? I'd thought. I brushed it off at the time. I thought she was acting crazy. It was some bizarre moment where she stepped through a portal into a parallel universe, the one where she didn't want to be there for my future. She was healthy, vibrant, full of life. She would be there. Of course she'd be there.

Thinking back, I know that she knew. This was her way of telling me, her youngest granddaughter, the one she spent the most time with: Something was ... off. Something was wrong. She couldn't put her finger on it, she wouldn't have known what to look for, and my grandma was never one to press if doctors gave her a clean bill of health.

Doctors and experts have long called ovarian cancer the "silent killer," because symptoms are rare before it enters its late stages. If there are symptoms, they are vague and ambiguous, and they're so subtle that you could miss them in the hustle and bustle of motherhood. When they start to noticeably combust, it's sudden—and often too late.

But if it is caught, chance of eliminating the disease is 90 percent in its early stages, according to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition. Right now, only 19 percent of cases fall into that category. Most women don't know what to look for until the symptoms stop life in its tracks, just like my grandmother's case.

In light of that number, and as a woman, I urge you to take care of your body and your health. I urge you to listen.

I think we all have a sixth sense that tells us when something is wrong. Really wrong. Gram felt it. I believe it was speaking to her.

Just recently, doctors have discussed four early symptoms of ovarian cancer: bloating; pelvic or abdominal pain; urinary frequency or urgency; and loss of appetite. They are a part of the new guidelines for diagnosing disease, according to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance.

Can I add another sign to that list? Intuition. You know your own body. You know when something is wrong. Listen.

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. In honor of that, in honor of mothers and grandmothers and future moms, in honor of Gram, I urge you to hear out the whispers of your body. Hear out that sixth sense, no matter how crazy it sounds. What's it telling you?

Listen. And then, respond.

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