It was December 2000 and one of the members of my women’s groups looked me in the my eyes and said: ‘I don’t know how you’re still standing.’ But I never felt that way. Yes, it had been a hard year—with more to come—but it wasn’t as if I had any control over the events that had occurred. And besides, I was still standing.

Adrienne Dern

My new life was about to begin, but I didn’t know that yet. 

Diagnosis

I had met Dr. Lazarus, my new gynecologist, twice before. But the third time was different: I was in a hospital gown in the preoperative section of Holy Cross Hospital and Dr. Lazarus greeted me in a mask and surgical gown. The time for exploratory surgery to determine the cause of the abdominal pain and breakthrough bleeding I’d experienced for more than a year had arrived. I don’t recall how I expressed my fear, but he looked me squarely in the eye and said, “mega-benign.” And when I didn’t look reassured, he said it again, “mega-benign.” 

An hour or two later Dr. Lazarus stood above me as I struggled to open my eyes and awaken. The look of concern on his face had begun to register, but it was his words that jolted me to consciousness: “Your ovaries look bad and you’re not leaving the hospital until Dr. Steren comes to see you.” 

Dr. Steren, a gynecologic oncologist, confirmed what Dr. Lazarus had suspected — ovarian cancer—and surgery was scheduled for a week later. Yet in hope and desperation, I called Dr. Lazarus. “Shouldn’t I get a second opinion? Couldn’t it be something else?” He was kind, but firm. “It is ovarian cancer and you need to have your surgery as planned.” 

Treatment

The following week was a blur—preparing to be away from work for six-to-eight weeks, sharing the news with family and friends while trying to hold my fear in check, and more tests, including one that left me feeling vulnerable and humiliated. I wept in my car following the invasive CT-scan. The tears were not for fear of losing my life, but for what I thought would fill my remaining days—doctors, hospitals, nasty treatments, more pain. 

On March 2, 2000, Dr. Steren removed my ovaries, uterus, fallopian tubes and a few unfamiliar body parts. My cancer journey had begun. I was 48 years old and had stage 2 ovarian and stage 1 uterine cancers.

I recovered from the surgery. The following months were consumed with chemotherapy and radiation. 

Pelvic radiation was rough and made eating nearly impossible, but then it was over. The aftermath of each chemotherapy session was challenging and so was seeing my hairless self in the mirror, but they were temporary. Dr. Lazarus called me at home after my first infusion to see how I was doing. Pretty crappy, but his caring meant a lot, and his simple suggestion to suck on ice pops for the nausea made a difference. So did acupuncture. A skillful practitioner created a soothing environment that felt worlds apart from harsh treatments. 

Through it all, family, friends and co-workers rallied. I may have felt alone, but I never was. I may not have craved food, but friends brought it anyway. They took me shopping for wigs and head-scarves, accompanied me to long sessions of chemotherapy, brought lovely little presents, helped me remember who I was.

Smith Farm retreat

September arrived and with it the end of treatment. In November I was scheduled to attend a Smith Farm (now Center) Cancer Help Program retreat. It was all I could think about, but it was not to be. Upon returning from a late October tour of Portugal with my dad, my mother was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. As the time for the retreat approached, her doctors cautioned that it would not be a good time to be away. They were right. She died four-and-a-half weeks after her diagnosis. 

Recovery and mourning continued and life went on. In March 2001 I made it to my Smith Farm retreat. 

I was nervous as we gathered in our first circle—eight patients and a like number of staff—a counselor, massage therapists, yoga teachers, cooks, musicians and artists. The staff created a safe container for anything that might arise. We—the cancer patients—were about to embark on an intense week that no amount of anticipation could have prepared us for. Fear, anger, sadness, joy, open hearts, and healing. 

We spent our days and nights in group therapy, writing poetry, participating in sing-alongs, having massages, creating a sand tray. We shared our anguish; we considered our lives with unflinching honesty. 

Guided by Smith Farm co-founder Barbara Smith Coleman, I created a sand try. It symbolized the aspirations of my life—to live with beauty, freedom and balance. My life was anything but. Barbara asked which symbol represented my husband. “None of them,” I replied. I knew then that the rupture in my marriage had to be faced. And although it was another 18 months before we divorced, like the Cowardly Lion I found that I already possessed the courage to make daunting, but necessary, changes in my life.

Life after treatment

Health-wise I had no idea what my future would hold. I was seeing three oncologists—surgical, medical, radiation—every quarter. It took time to stop worrying about a reccurence. The years since treatment haven’t been a walk in the park, but my cancer has not returned. Two months after my last treatment, I had my first small bowel obstruction. Although they’ve plagued me ever since, a regimen of supplements and dietary changes recommended by trusted physicians have brought much relief. Twelve years following my diagnosis, I returned from a trip to Portugal with lymphedema in my right leg. At first it was overwhelming as I struggled with a change in body image and attempts to follow overly prescriptive advice from a lymphatic drainage therapist. I was so swathed in compression garments, I could barely move, and her suggestion that I do nightly lymphatic drainage nearly tipped me over the emotional edge. But over the years I’ve learned how to manage it and, for the most part, lymphedema has become background noise in my life. 

I can’t tell you when I stopped worrying that cancer would return. But I did. At significant intervals—five, 10 and 20 years post-diagnosis—I gathered with my closest friends to celebrate being alive. The 20-year celebration took place 12 days before the coronavirus shut the US down. As we shared the joys and sorrows we had each experienced over those 20 years we were oblivious to how our lives were about to change. But that’s how life is, isn’t it? One moment things seem fine, then we awaken from anesthesia, or hear that a pandemic has reached our shores, and we know that we are about to begin our lives anew.

I know how lucky I have been. I’ve lost my mother, my sister-in-law and a number of dear friends to cancer since my diagnosis. But here I am, alive and mostly well 22 years and counting after seeing the grim look on Dr. Lazarus’ face.

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About the Author

Adrienne Dern

Adrienne has resided in the Washington, DC, area her entire adult life, working until retirement for nonprofits in the areas of health and aging.

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Adrienne has resided in the Washington, DC, area her entire adult life, working until retirement for nonprofits in the areas of health and aging. She is an art lover, hospice volunteer, lifelong learner and last, but not least, a lover of cats. She currently shares her home with Beasley, an enchanting tuxedo kitty who makes her laugh every day.

Adrienne Dern