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GILDA RADNER

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GILDA AND I

There are so many stories one can tell. I never thought cancer would have been one of mine. In the entire history of my family, there has been no cancer. Mental illness yes; cancer no. Then there was me. I hit the jackpot. I got both! It’s not all bad. Turns out cancer was the antidote to my depression. Before I tell you how cancer saved my life, I need to back up.

In 2008, I had an abortion. From 2009 until 2017 I was a broken-down woman suffering from regret from that termination. It became an obsession to fix the problem through assisted reproduction using an egg donor. I spent eight years in purgatory. I was ambivalent about my choice to have another child since my husband wasn’t on board. Plus, I was so anxious and busy punishing myself for my mistake. I couldn’t follow through. My thoughts were looping with three words, who does that? I was referring to the abortion. In my mind, I took the wrong road and screwed up my future happiness.

I had never been so self-absorbed. I had one beautiful young son who was only four when I terminated what could have been his sibling. I had a husband I loved, albeit now resented because I partially blamed him for the abortion. I was ambivalent about the process to do what it took to have another child. I wouldn’t stop shooting myself up with hormones or taking trips to Cornell Medical Center for ultrasounds, at the same time sabotaging my chances. It was a cruel and very involved process.

In September of 2017, at fifty-years-old, I woke with heartburn. At the encouragement of my sister, I made an appointment with a gastroenterologist. After the nurse practitioner wrote me a prescription for Prilosec, she did a quick examination. Touching my pelvis, she pulled back her hand as if she burned herself on a hot pan. I knew it was there; a two-inch lump I told myself was a feces stuck in my descending colon. With lightning speed, she penned CT scan STAT on a prescription pad. A few hours after my scan, she called and informed me of an appointment she set up with an oncologist the following day. A who? I went to Wikipedia.

The oncologist told me that the lump I felt was a tumor, four-point one centimeters. How was I going to confess to people that the mass in my descending colon was cancer disguised as poop? My husband and I looked at each other with utter disbelief. The oncologist continued to speak, “Now what they are seeing on your—“

My head whipped back to the doctor. “What—there’s more?”

“There is a twelve-centimeter tumor in your pelvis; they can’t see your ovaries.”

Trying to visualize twelve-centimeters, I suck at math, I was too embarrassed to ask. Considering the width of my pelvis I figured close to five inches. The next day after more scans, we found out cancer had metastasized to my chest and neck. My oncologist, like a parrot with an Indian accent, kept saying “aggressive,” but I grew to like his broken sentences; he was being concise. “It’s big. Ovarian tumor. Must come out.”

My high-grade serous carcinoma is the most malignant form of ovarian cancer and it spreads like wildfire through the abdomen early in the course of the disease. Ovarian cancer is rare, only 2.5 percent of cancers in women. It is the deadliest of gynecologic cancer with 59 percent of women diagnosed in its advanced stage. They call it the silent killer and you won’t find it on IMDB as the scariest movie ever made. Sadly this is the real deal.

The only sign that might have tipped me off was a distended belly. No one wanted to call attention to it. Most likely this was the sign of menopause. When I made fun of it, my sisters and friends would smile and respond with how surprising and sweet it looked on my petite frame. That was it. A belly. I joked that if I weren’t going to have another baby, at least I would walk around believing I was pregnant.

What other signs are there that women don’t talk about? Irritable bowel syndrome. Who doesn’t suffer from IBS? That’s a symptom, but so is constipation. There are so many contradictions in the world of cancer it’s hilarious. Other symptoms are cramping, bloating, fatigue, or an irregular period. Come on, this is what being a woman entails.

I added up the number of risks I’d taken over the last decade, besides skydiving. Drinking: check. Smoking: rarely, but, check. Neither of those bad habits is associated with increased chances of ovarian cancer. While, Fertility treatment with in vitro fertilization: check; having a child after thirty-five: check and getting older: check, all have potential to be the culprit. So since I had no symptoms that didn’t seem outside the norm of being a woman, my surgeon assured me, ”When you came to see me, the cancer was already out of the barn.”

I looked like I was pondering his statement, but my response was, “Are you sure this is cancer?” He smiled and said, “I see we’re in the humor stage.” And then went on to assure me, “You have cancer, Gilda Radner-type ovarian cancer.” Was this supposed to make me feel proud of myself? I shared a disease with one of the greatest comedians of all time, whose death was publicized as horrific and painful to the end. We began to identify Gilda with ovarian cancer we had no other role models. So when the doctor assured me I was in good company, I got a pretty clear picture of what that meant.

There was something else Gilda and I shared; we both were obsessed with our ovaries. Gilda Radner wanted to have children but was not able to conceive. She tried IVF and had a hard time coming to terms that she might not have a baby. It’s hard not to see the irony in both of our scenarios. We were both desperate to have our ovaries produce life; instead, we got baby cancer, as I like to refer to it.

Why is Gilda Radner one of the most notable ovarian cancer celebrities? Why does breast cancer have so many icons? Ovarian cancer doesn’t get to walk the red carpet. We don’t even have our own month or our own color ribbon.

Gilda Radner died in 1989, thirty years ago; haven’t there been advancement since then? Ovarian cancer is vague, it’s hard to detect and there is no screening for it. Options for treatment after the first-line of therapy are a crapshoot. There are over a thousand clinical trials throwing darts at ovarian cancer. That’s a lot of chemotherapy. After my first line of treatment, my outcome was platinum resistant. It didn’t work; I did not go into remission. Now I change chemotherapy protocols like I a newborn’s diaper. I always remember what a renowned researcher at Johns Hopkins said to me about the possibility of a cure, “not in your time.” My sister likes to say, “All you have to do is live one more year. They're bound to discover something by then.” All I have to do is show up for infusions every month or more to keep the little cancerous interlopers from growing. If I’m lucky she may be right. It’s like a very, very, very long tennis match.

When my doctor explained the surgery to take all my female organs out, I had a few questions. Will you have to take out my colon? Can there be a link to fertility drugs I had taken while trying to conceive? Would I be able to get Botox during chemotherapy? The answer: No. No. Yes. One point for me! I have my priorities. One might think wanting smooth skin should be irrelevant for one in dying mode, but my time is now baby.

If it wasn’t my time for the last quarter of my life while I was suffering acute anxiety, it is now. I couldn’t and wouldn’t put down my emotional suffering over the loss of my baby. Not until the day I was given a death sentence.

One of my favorite books I read to my son when he was younger is Zen Shorts by Jon J Muth. It reminds me of my situation.

There was once an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day, his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it two other wild horses. “Such good luck!” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the farmer. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses and broke his leg. Ultimately, he avoided being drafted into a war. Get where this is going? The message as the boy in the book understands is that “Maybe good luck and back luck are all mixed up. You never know what will happen next.”

People like to tell me that my outlook on life while living with cancer inspires them. Even those with cancer can’t help but notice. In accepting cancer as a release from my depression, I haven’t lived at odds with it. It’s overshadowed the negative. Do I hate going for infusions? YES. Is it an inconvenience to have to go once, often more times a month for the rest of my life? YES. Is it terrifying to wake up knowing I have cancer? Not completely. I used to wake up shaking from the demons in my own mind. Now I get up with energy and positivity because time is an illusion. I have to take what’s in front of me now. The future doesn’t exist for any of us until the second-hand moves one notch forward.

I do not believe having positive thoughts will cure stage 4 ovarian cancer. What I believe is that it makes the moment the only true thing. Cancer has woken me up. I spent too long criticizing myself, thinking I didn’t have enough, believing I was promised a future and I was the one in control.

I am fortunate to present healthy even when I lost my hair, went through major surgery, and have to get chemotherapy once a month now two after diagnosis. I have to get CT scans every three months. It’s a constant reminder to walk this earth with my head held high, so that I can see all the amazing colors, connect with a never-ending spectrum of personalities and treat myself with the respect I give to others. Why me? Why not me? And thank you cancer for setting me free. Now go away.

REFERENCES

1. https://www.cancer.net/

Ovarian, Fallopian Tube, and Peritoneal Cancer: Statistics

2. https://ocrahope.org

- Beth Cramer

Beth Cramer is an accomplished editor and director of independent films, commercials and music videos. She is the author of WHY DIDN'T I NOTICE HER BEFORE? Irreverent, painfully honest and often hilarious, Why Didn’t I Notice Her Before? is a beautifully observed memoir that finds courage and humor in the face of undefeatable odds.

    Author of WHY DIDN'T I NOTICE HER BEFORE? - ORDER HERE

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