This September, in honor of Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month, MadameNoire is speaking to several cancer survivors about their journeys battling ovarian, cervical, and other cancers.
The courageous LaShawn Woodward-Hall is an ovarian cancer survivor who was diagnosed at the age of 14 after experiencing severe bloating in her abdomen. Thinking she was pregnant because she was raped months prior to her diagnosis, Hall went to the hospital for treatment. Initially doctors diagnosed her with gastritis but after her abdomen continued to swell, doctors did an ultrasound and found a tumor. In a very open and honest interview, Hall provides insight on her treatment process during the ’90s and how being a survivor can affect not only your health but your marriage.
How did you find out you had Ovarian Cancer?
My diagnosis was in September of 1991 and I was 14 years old. I am currently 37 and I have been a survivor for 23 years. In January of 1991, I was raped and afterward I started to look as though I was 5 months pregnant. During the time, teen pregnancy was on the rise but no one really addressed me to ask if I was. I went to the hospital and did a pregnancy test but it returned negative. Because of this, my doctor diagnosed me as having gastritis and gave me Mylanta so the bloating could go away, but it did not. When I went back to the doctor, they ruled out pregnancy and gastritis. They decided to do an ultrasound and a trans-vaginal ultrasound, as well. Once they did that, they found a tumor the size of a grapefruit. They didn’t know what it was so they performed more exams and found out it was cancer. They scheduled surgery immediately because of the tumor’s size. Bloating was my main symptom but I was also tired and fatigued too. Many women claim they lose their appetite but mine increased. That’s why I believed I was pregnant.
Who was the first person you told about your diagnosis?
I told my parents because of my age at the time, but the other person was my best friend. I went to her house and showed her my stomach. She, too, asked if I was pregnant because of how swollen my abdomen was. Once it was revealed to me that I had cancer I told her because I had to leave school for awhile. To this day, some of my peers thought I left school to have a baby but word did spread that I had cancer.
What can you tell us about your sexual assault and how it affected you?
I was raped by three young men who lived in my neighborhood. While I was preparing for surgery, I received a letter stating one of the young men was HIV positive. Even though I was exposed to HIV, I remain HIV negative. My rapist unfortunately died from the disease’s complications. He was very troubled but never showed signs of it; I never understood why would he assault me but I didn’t know his history.
Were there any side affects from the treatment process?
In those days radiation was more popular than chemotherapy. As I prepared for treatment, I did research on the difference between radiation and chemotherapy, especially because my parents were not educated on ovarian cancer. Also, it is hardly discussed in the black community and cancer was not as prevalent in the early 1990s as it is today. Once I chose radiation treatment, I was told I wouldn’t be able to have children. As my radiation treatment continued, I began to transition into menopause. By the time I turned 15 years old, I was in the early stages of menopause. The radiation treatment caused me a great deal of stress and nausea. I wasn’t able to eat and was constantly fatigued. I also wasn’t able to travel anywhere; it was a very long process. After radiation, I was finally on the road to recovery.
How do you feel about your fertility now compared to the time before receiving treatment?
A major issue in my first marriage was fertility. After recovering from ovarian cancer at the age of 15 to adulthood, I knew I was not able to give birth so I never investigated other fertility options. When I met my first husband, I knew fertility was going to be an issue because he came from a large family and he was keen on having children. We tried to do fertility treatments and the costs were ridiculous! Back then it was around $30,000 in comparison to the current prices which are even more. We also had to pay more because I needed an egg donor, so we also had to pay for our egg donor’s procedures, medications and services. I also could not receive fertility coverage through my insurance so these payments were deducted from me and my husband’s fiances. In recent years, because of ObamaCare, I can receive some coverage for fertility treatments. Eventually, my first marriage dissolved and I met my second husband. Because I was older, I had more insight on the fertility treatment process and my own body. Therefore, I started to look into fertility grants because of how costly it is. We did a fundraiser through an organization called INCIID and also participated in a HaveABaby.com contest. I didn’t win but I was the runner up and was featured in documentaries that follow women who are going through the fertility process. We are still moving forward with the process to raise funds for treatments in order to have a baby.
What should women know about ovarian cancer?
Women should know ovarian cancer is a silent killer. Its symptoms are not always apparent or extreme- usually the main symptom is bloating but other women have urinary tract infections. When women get their annual gynecological exam they should request a CA-125 (screening test for ovarian cancer) to be done. A pap smear does not cover everything but there are talks in the medical field that they are formulating pap smears that can also screen for cancer cells. Women must request these type of tests and should be more aware of their bodily changes. By being diagnosed at a young age, I learned to communicate what changes I noticed in my body. When I noticed my stomach bloating, I felt the extra weight in it as well but no one would listen. That experience taught me to be more adamant in sharing what I knew did not feel right about my body and health.
What should men know about ovarian cancer?
I think it is important for women to tell men what it is and how it affects our reproductive organs. I would recommend husbands and fathers to observe any changes going on with their wives or daughters’ bodies. Men should openly communicate the changes they notice because when their significant other’s health changes, both of their lives change — especially sexually and emotionally.