By SARA ARTHURS
Anne Hermiller and Sarah Ludinich experienced ovarian cancer at different stages in life. What’s similar is their passion for making other women more aware of the disease and its effects.
Hermiller, of Findlay, learned she had cancer in 2014. “I was tired,” she said. “I was just getting tired.”
She went to a bed one night and just felt “a little bump,” which she thought was likely a hernia.
That bump turned out to be “a big mass,” and she sought treatment at the James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, where a surgery removed three tumors. There was one on each ovary — the size of a grapefruit and the size of a canteloupe — with a third in her abdomen, the size of a peach. It was stage 3-C, meaning the cancer had jumped from one part of the body to another.
Dr. Henry Gerad, medical oncologist with Blanchard Valley Health System, said only about 15 percent of ovarian cancer patients are diagnosed in early stages.
“We do not have very good screening techniques for ovarian cancer,” he said.
Symptoms may include abdominal bloating, pain, a change in bowel habits and fatigue. Gini Steinke, executive director of the Toledo-based nonprofit organization Ovarian Cancer Connection, said warning signs can also include difficulty eating, urgency or frequency of urination or back pain. These are usually caused by something else, but if it’s unusual for you and lasts more than two weeks, “get it checked out.”
“Women really need to be aware of their bodies,” she said.
She said ovarian cancer is “on the rise” in northwestern Ohio and southeastern Michigan, particularly among younger women and even teenage girls. She plans to have survivors educate medical and nursing students, so they are aware that what may seem to be a urinary tract infection or the flu might be something else.
Women who had their first child over age 35, have a history of another malignancy such as breast or colon cancer, or have the BRCA gene mutation are particularly at risk. Older women, women with polycystic ovary syndrome or endometriosis, and smokers may also be more at risk.
‘You just hold your breath’
Ludinich knew “something wasn’t right.” She’d had bowel problems, felt bloated all the time and could only eat a few bites at a sitting — because, she later learned, the tumor was taking up so much space. But, she said, every woman experiences symptoms like bloating at some point.
It wasn’t until she actually felt a mass that she got it checked out. An oncologist at the James removed a basketball-sized tumor on Dec. 12, shortly after she turned 21. She had 28 treatments of chemotherapy beginning in January and was deemed cancer-free in April.
Hermiller put it this way: Think of how long it takes for a baby to show, when a woman is pregnant. “There’s so much room in there.” So, as a tumor grows, it isn’t always noticed.
Hermiller said many women don’t realize that “a Pap does not detect ovarian cancer.” (It actually screens for cervical cancer.)
And, “reproductive health is such a taboo subject,” Ludinich said. “We talk about breasts all the time now,” but we don’t talk about ovaries or uteruses, even though every woman has them, she said.
Ludinich has a family history of other types of cancer, but not this kind. She called it “dumb luck.” One of her eggs started growing as if it was a fertilized egg about to become a baby. It’s known as germ cell cancer, different from epithelial cell, which is another type of ovarian cancer.
Being diagnosed “was, I mean, life-shattering,” she said. The day before, Ludinich was worrying about her classes at the University of Findlay, where she is majoring in physical therapy. Now she was making major medical decisions at 21. She said everyone knows someone who has had cancer, but for most of her friends in college it was a parent or a grandparent — not someone their own age.
Hermiller, now 56, was 53 when she was first diagnosed. She has no family history and was a “Y-rat,” meaning she worked out all the time, six times a week, at the YMCA. She also participated in 5Ks. She was a nonsmoker, watched her diet closely and had her children when she was young.
“It does not discriminate,” she said of ovarian cancer.
She had chemotherapy after surgery, also at the James. “I lost my long blond hair,” she said.
Hermiller said doctors had removed all the cancer, and things were looking good. Then she had a recurrence last summer. They ended up having to take out 18 inches of her lower intestine, and got “all but one little spot.” She had complications after the surgery, which might have been caused by something like a staple leaking after they readjusted how her organs lay in her body.
This necessitated a second, emergency surgery.
A year later, she is “struggling.” She lost a lot of weight, and can’t seem to put it back on. “And I’m tired all the time.” She’s also “obsessed with knowing my CA-125,” an antigen measured in a blood test.
Hermiller said she is “hopeful” that she will keep responding well to treatment. She has regular checkups every two months and said “you just hold your breath” when they come in the room.
She’s disappointed there isn’t much awareness of ovarian cancer, but she wasn’t very aware herself, before. She said we all take for granted “that it happens to somebody else.”
Looking to the future
In a Sept. 16 letter to the editor in The Courier, Hermiller wrote that Findlay told Ovarian Cancer Connection the city had no interest in supporting the September “Turn the Town Teal” ribbon awareness campaign, as they were instead supporting the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.
Steinke explained the situation differently, explaining a few years ago she and city officials “just didn’t connect.” This year, she made an initial contact but didn’t follow up, as Findlay was dealing with a major flood at the time she was getting the campaign organized.
Her hope is that next year “we will definitely start turning the town teal,” as they did this past September in 32 towns in northwestern Ohio and southeastern Michigan, including Bowling Green.
Ludinich was involved with a Turn the Town Teal campaign on campus. She felt the ribbons were there because of survivors like her: “Because I went through hell and back and I survived.”
Both women said the support of loved ones made a huge difference.
“I have the best prayer warriors in the world,” said Hermiller, who attends St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church. Strangers have approached her at Panera to say they are praying for her. Parishioners even gathered at a Mass under a tent in her driveway, after she finished her chemotherapy.
Her husband, Jerry, tells people that with so many people praying for her, “God’s afraid to take her,” which is why she is still here.
Ludinich, too, said her relationship with God helped.
“I kind of felt like He was preparing me for all this,” she said.
Once she was declared cancer-free, she felt it would get better emotionally, but it didn’t. “There was a lot of survivor’s guilt,” she said. People expect life to go back to normal but “it’s not how it works at all.” She found it hard to talk about and would cry for no reason. She felt like she had everything to be happy for, but still couldn’t. So she sought counseling.
Another emotional ordeal was looking in the mirror. “When you see bald, all you see is cancer,” Ludinich said. She lost her hair all at once. She got up one morning and started brushing her hair and it “cascaded off of my head.” Her mother came in and began catching her hair, in clumps. That’s when it became real: “You have poison running through your blood right now.”
Ludinich had always dreamed of having children, and she asked her doctors to do whatever they could to make that possible. She thought that if she couldn’t have biological children and would have to adopt, she would be OK with that — at some point. But the idea that that “wasn’t a choice anymore” at age 21 felt awful. In the end, doctors only ended up having to remove one of her ovaries.
Ludinich got closer to her parents during her treatment. Her best friend came to Columbus for her treatments from their hometown near Zanesville, driving more than two hours, often to see Ludinich fall asleep midsentence. And her toddler niece came to the hospital to visit her and they’d hang out with their blankies, though she didn’t understand why her aunt couldn’t pick her up, as Ludinich could not lift more than 10 pounds.
Her oncologist is hopeful, but she doesn’t know what the future holds.
“That is the hardest thing about having cancer,” Ludinich said. Hermiller, meanwhile, hopes to walk in an awareness walk next year. She’s also continuing to educate others.
“You just never know who’s going to be told tomorrow,” she said.
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