Ovarian cancer survivor: 'I want to get busy living'

Abby and daughter

“Just because you are diagnosed with cancer does not mean you are dying. I want to get busy living.” – Abby M.

Abby M. was a 31-year-old college student, a term away from graduating in business technology. Her partner Matt and three children kept her life full and busy.

“I was at the point that I had a grasp on my future,” Abby said. “When I found out I had cancer, it was devastating.”

It started with severe cramping and bloating in 2012, resulting in a diagnosis of endometriosis and a need for a hysterectomy. Dr. Frederick Frank, gynecologist at Salem Clinic, began Abby’s surgery with a few small incisions and he knew right away something wasn’t right.

He immediately stopped the surgery and called Dr. Melissa Moffitt, a gynecologic oncologist. “He sewed me back up,” she said. “He could tell I had ovarian cancer.”  

Diagnosed with stage 4 on Oct. 3, 2013, Abby didn’t know if she was living or dying. “I was scared to death,” she said.

It was a whirlwind after that. Abby had a port installed in her chest to deliver her first chemotherapy at the end of October. Ovarian cancer had spread to the lining of her lungs. “It was travelling fast and the doctors wanted to get it under control before surgery,” Abby said.

Abby and daughter

Major surgery

After about six weeks, Dr. Elizabeth Munro at OHSU, filling in for Dr. Moffitt, did a hysterectomy to remove the cancer. Abby had an incision from the pubic line to the bottom of her breast. “It was pretty extensive,” she said.

Abby healed for a few weeks, got her staples out, and was back on chemotherapy until March 26, 2014, the day before her birthday. “That was the day they told me I was in remission!” Abby said.

She still experienced permanent side effects, including neuropathy in her feet from the chemo and muscle and bone pain from the shots she received to help her immune system.

A difficult setback

After 14 months, her level of CA 125, which is a protein found in tumor cells, started rising again. In May 2015, she was diagnosed with recurrent cancer.

“I had been told that if it comes back, it will most likely come back again and that I would be on and off chemo for years,” she said.

Abby‘s immune system had to be strong enough to start chemo again, so she took medication to help boost it. Only certain drugs work and, at any time, the body may reject them. She started a new drug, but it was more painful and had severe side effects.

“I wanted the cancer gone,” Abby said. “Emotionally, if I missed chemo, I felt like the cancer was winning. I endured a lot of pain because I needed to fight hard to continue treatment.”

Abby had a severe reaction to the medication during her last chemo appointment in mid-October 2015. Her physicians decided against additional chemo , and fortunately today she has no evidence of disease.

“Just because you are diagnosed with cancer does not mean you are dying,” said Abby. “I want to get busy living.”

“Having cancer doesn’t make me different or less capable. It never makes me feel ‘less than,’” Abby said. “I had to give up some things I am passionate about and find other passions. There will be struggles, but you have to fight!”

Abby and daughter

The road forward

Abby’s support system is strong.  She said her family, extended family, friends and medical staff were really good to her.

“Every time I walk into Building C on the Salem Health campus there isn’t a day where they don’t call me by my first name and smile,” Abby said. “I feel like we’ve become a small family. When I walk in there, I feel comfortable.”

And today, she feels great. Abby spends time volunteering at her daughter’s gymnastic center, focusing on family, staying fit and eating healthy. She still has pain and memory loss, but remains focused on her healing.

She is also preparing for a double mastectomy because her inherited mutation of the BRCA genes increases her risk for breast cancer.

“When I get through this and have a remission that lasts more than two years, I may look at going back to school again,” Abby said. “I just want to live.”

If you have questions about a cancer concern, please call the Salem Cancer Institute, an OSHU Knight Cancer Institute partner, at 503-562-4321.