September 6, 2014

#TealToes and Mi Familia

The Daughters and I painted our toes teal tonight. As in we got on the floor and painted our toes as if they were still itty-bitty girls and I didn't need help getting up.

But, it was more than just a Saturday night in the floor, painting piggies and eating Veggie Straws. It was a time for me to tell them about my family.

And about Ovarian Cancer.

And about being a woman and taking control of your health.

My cousin Lisa and I got to visit on the phone this week. I can't really recall the last time we got to visit with each other. She lives in Indiana and is originally from New York. I live in Oklahoma. The logistics don't favor us.

This week was a real treat to visit with her. Sadly, though, it was because I wanted to hear Elena's story.

Elena, Lisa's daughter, would have been 30 this year. By all accounts from people who knew her well and those who met her only once, she was an amazing person: Smart, Beautiful, Compassionate, Friendly, Ambitious. In fact, it was her drive to be a family counselor (or a marriage counselor even, but she wasn't married yet!) that drove her to immediately pursue her graduate work as soon as she completed her Bachelor's degree.

In October of 2006, she was taking advanced course work, interning and working as a nanny for three families. So, when she began complaining of being tired, having a sore back, exhaustion, stomach aches, it was quickly dismissed as the life she was leading. Who wouldn't be all of those things doing all of those things? Her Italian grandfather even said that it was all of that bad Mexican food she was eating.

In November, she sought help from the student health center, which sent her to a gynecologist, who diagnosed her with endometriosis. Again, this was a sound diagnosis, but just to be sure, Lisa had Elena go to Lisa's Ob-Gyn for a second opinion when she returned home for Thanksgiving. He confirmed the diagnosis, but since Elena was just 23-years-old, they would need to work at treating the endometriosis. And, of course, everyone was concerned about future fertility issues. In the meantime, Elena continued to have increasing pain. The bloating became such as issue that her pants were getting tight. She was scheduled for surgery on December 19.

Her brother, Jonathan--who Lisa likens to my own dad in stature and willingness to settle down--visited her in December. He reported that she's still sick. Her belly was getting bigger. She's sent home often because of her weariness. But, trooper that Elena is, she finished her final paper and hoped to be home for the holidays soon.

On December 15, however, Elena became very, very sick. Her roommate returned home to discover Elena vomiting profusely; she was even unable to keep water down. When they called in, Elena was told that she didn't sound too sick. Her roommate took her to the emergency room instead.

Jonathan met them there and was asked by the nursing staff, "Is your wife having a baby?" This was just how big Elena's belly and abdomen have become.

On Saturday, Elena was transferred to HUP (Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania). After more tests were run, they had a more definitive answer. When Lisa and her husband, John, arrived on Sunday, they were given the diagnosis: Ovarian Cancer.

Four weeks to the day after being admitted on December 15, Elena was surrounded by family, friends, ministers, and medical staff, and she peacefully passed from this world with Beatles songs playing quietly in the background.

Four weeks.

While those four weeks were filled with tests and trials and good news/bad news, it was--as you can imagine--a roller coaster ride. It was not nearly enough time to treat Elena.

That's the trouble with Ovarian Cancer. It's a silent killer and there are no reliable screenings. It's symptoms are so akin to those that every adult female has endured just because she's a woman: Bloating, Cramps, Exhaustion. Elena was examined by three different, well-respected doctors without one nod to Ovarian Cancer. It's just not thought of. That's why it's so important for you to think of it. If you're not a woman, think of it for the women in your life. Tell your young daughters about it so that if the time comes, they can ask the right questions and demand that Ovarian Cancer be ruled out.

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness month. It's also the last of the summer months. Show off your Teal Toes, ask the right questions when you visit your doctor, and remember that if Ovarian Cancer can attack a smart, healthy 23-year-old and take her life on this earth in less than twelve weeks, it can attack you as well.

If you feel led to give to Ovarian Cancer research, Lisa recommends Sandy Rollman Ovarian Cancer Foundation. And, of course, Lisa will accept donations for the Elena Ariano Memorial Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. That goes directly to research Ovarian Cancer at HUP. You can email me for information.

(As an aside, Jonathan has recently become a Nurse Practitioner and now works at HUP.)

Our Saturday night, sitting in the floor, painting our toes teal and talking about cousins that my girls had never met? It was a Saturday night well spent. 

Share Elena's story.

Supervise your own health.

Show me your #TealToes .


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