Cancer runs in my family, but I had not dwelled on the fact as I grew up and then began raising a family. Ovarian cancer was the furthest thing from my mind until the winter of 2020.
I grew up in Gastonia, where I still live with my partner, Casey, my mom and stepdad, and my four children – Taylor (10), Brayden (7), Gracie (6) and Zoey (2). I’ve been a stay-at-home mom for the past six years because Gracie was born with cerebral palsy. With her doctors and therapy needs, she’s my full-time job.
We’re a really close family. Casey, the kids and I love to ride roller coasters, take walks and just be together.
In January 2020, I started having pain on the left side of my abdomen. I went to my ob-gyn, and she did an ultrasound. They found what they thought was a 7-centimeter benign cyst on my left ovary. We set the date to take it out, just a week and half away.
By the time she removed the growth, it was 15 centimeters. Not good. On Valentine’s Day, I had an office visit to remove the staples from my incision. That’s when they told me I had cancer. It was officially called a teratoma, a kind of tumor that can happen in the ovaries.
I broke down and cried. That’s all I could do. I couldn’t say anything. Yes, I had the family history. My grandfather died of lung cancer and so did some other relatives. Still, I couldn’t believe it. I was only 30. I had ovarian cancer.
My ob-gyn advised me to see Dr. Janelle Fauci at Novant Health Cancer Institute - Elizabeth. She said Dr. Fauci was one of the best to determine how far along the cancer was and get everything in line for chemotherapy.
I delivered the news to Casey and my mama when I walked in the door at home. My mama started praying at that very moment. She and I have always been close. She was scared to death that I was going to die.
I didn’t tell my kids for the first two months. I wanted to know everything I could first. It hurt to hide such a big secret from them. Taylor may be young, but she’s got an old soul. She understands way beyond her years. If she wants to know something, she’s going to keep asking until she knows I’m telling her the truth. She knew something was wrong, and I promised I would tell her when I knew more.
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Dr. Fauci set up my CAT scans and blood work. They showed I had four tumors in my stomach and one in my liver. My cervix was also covered with cancer. Over the next six months I had four surgeries. I had to have a complete hysterectomy and some of my bladder, liver and intestines removed, plus my gallbladder and appendix.
I told my kids what was going on before the second surgery on March 12. Both Taylor and Brayden broke down. I kept reassuring them it was going to be OK. The kids were dealing with a lot, including a baby in the house. Zoey was only 8 months old then.
Then there was more bad news. A week after my March surgery, doctors discovered a hematoma – a pool of blood – had formed inside my belly. They would have to open me up again. The follow-up surgery on March 19 was especially crazy. When I went to sleep from the anesthesia, lots of family members were still allowed to be at the hospital. When I woke up, nobody was there but my mama.
The rules had switched in an instant because COVID-19 had literally just arrived. I woke up to a new world that I could barely grasp. My mama said, “You’ve got to watch this” and turned on the news. I was like, “Oh, my God.”
'I have to get a hug'
I started chemotherapy in May. My mama was my rock throughout it. I don’t know what I would have done without her and my stepdad – “Nana” and “Bubba” to my kids. Mama and my sister Lindsay switched back and forth, taking me to chemo and being with the kids. They made sure the older ones were online in virtual school and doing their homework, while Casey worked at his job as a frozen food and dairy assistant manager at a grocery store. Lindsay moved in to help and got up in the middle of the night to feed and change the baby.
Casey, my mama, my stepdad and my sister all had jobs, so they created a schedule to keep track of everything. My aunts Lori and Debbie and cousin Andrea also helped whenever they needed to. My family was amazing.
In December 2020, about two weeks before Christmas, I had done my blood work and scans as usual before I saw Dr. Fauci for an office visit. This time, she told me and Mama that I was declared NED – no evidence of disease. I started crying again and hugged Dr. Fauci.
With COVID going on, we’re supposed to keep our distance, she said, “But I have to get a hug from you. I’m just so happy.” My doctors all knew how aggressive this cancer was.
Casey and my kids knew I was going to talk with the doctor about my scan. As soon as I came home, Taylor and Brayden came running. I bent down, held out my arms and said, “It’s gone, babies. It’s gone.” Taylor started crying and hugging me. Brayden was jumping up and down, running all over the house. Casey hugged and cried with me, too. That holiday was the best ever.
I’ve been cancer-free for a year and a half. I see Dr. Fauci every three months for scans and blood work as needed. My blood work now is perfectly normal. I have a few little tumors, but they aren’t growing, and they aren’t cancers – they’re benign – so we’re just watching them.
This experience has made me a whole lot closer with Casey and my kids. We just started riding roller coasters again. They love it. I love it, too. I’ve loved it since I was a teenager.
In a sense, we’d all just been through a terrible roller coaster ride with my cancer. I’m thrilled that my older children are tall enough now to where I can put them on the big rides and let them see how fun a roller coaster can be.
*As told to Andrea Cooper
Caption, top photo: Amber White (right) with mom, Rachel Stiles.
BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes predispose to ovarian cancer
By Andrea Cooper
In the U.S., about 20,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year. About half are 63 or older, according to the American Cancer Society. There is no screening test.
Most people assume ovarian cancer has few or no symptoms until it’s fairly far along and has spread through the abdomen. That can be true for the kind of ovarian cancer most likely to strike women in their 50s to 70s, according to Dr. Janelle Fauci, gynecologic oncologist with Novant Health Cancer Institute - Elizabeth in Charlotte.
But younger women are more likely to get a different type of ovarian cancer – one with “germ cell tumors,” Fauci explained. This type forms a mass that grows quickly and causes acute pain.
The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes predispose people to ovarian cancers. “There’s probably another 20 genes or so that can run in the family and increase the risk for ovary cancer,” Fauci said. While men don’t have ovaries, they can get cancers associated with ovarian cancer, including cancers of the prostate, pancreas, breast, and melanoma.
Fauci advises that anyone with current or previous ovarian cancer be tested to see if there’s a gene responsible for it.
Be proactive about your health. If someone in your family has one of these genes or passed away from ovarian cancer, talk with your physician to see if genetic testing and counseling is right for you. Genetic counseling can help you understand how to interpret and act on testing results.
Of course, contact your OB-GYN if you’re experiencing any pain, just as Amber did. In young women, the pain may be from cysts that are likely benign. Your doctor “will want to follow them,” Fauci said, “and make sure they go away like they should.”