Most survivors will tell you that a cancer diagnosis can impose a sense of isolation. No matter the level of support from family, friends, and faith, the words You have cancer have the power to build a wall between you and the wider world. For many, social media can be a powerful tool in disassembling this barrier by breaking down the fear and the anxiety that can result from feeling alone on the journey.
Online communities of cancer survivors are thriving, and Women magazine is glad to be a part of the network of support and inspiration. Through www.awomanshealth.com and our Facebook and Twitter communities, we are grateful to have the opportunity to engage with our readers and participate in the conversation.
Now, to launch what we hope will be an ongoing series, we’d like to introduce you to two members of our online community who have offered to share their stories in the hope that their experiences will offer inspiration and perspective to other women diagnosed with cancer. We’re grateful for their courage and inspired by their desire to make a difference.
Jennie McGihon, 35
Jennie McGihon was 32 and in otherwise good health when in April 2009 she was diagnosed first with a cancerous uterine polyp and, shortly thereafter, advanced ovarian cancer.
Given the severity of her diagnosis, Jennie launched her treatment immediately, undergoing three 21-day rounds of intravenous chemotherapy. After a brief respite following her last cycle of chemotherapy, she underwent a total hysterectomy in July 2009. “The pathology from my hysterectomy showed that I had responded very well to treatment and that with the removal of my uterus, right ovary (my left was removed during the first surgery since it was found to be necrotic, or dead), and omentum I was now officially tumor-free,” Jennie says.
But she wasn’t done yet. “Due to the deadliness of advanced ovarian cancer and my relatively young age, my doctor recommended that I do intraperitoneal (IP) chemotherapy for my last three rounds to increase the odds of killing any spare cancer cells.” After having ports inserted into her chest and abdomen so that drugs could be administered in both locations, Jennie weathered the IP chemo well and finished treatment for Stage IIIA ovarian and Stage I uterine cancer in September 2009.
Though she had completed treatment, Jennie continued to deal with the physical and psychological impact of the diagnosis. “My diagnosis put my normal 32-year-old life on hold,” she says. “I had to come to grips with many difficult things during treatment—like losing my fertility and entering menopause—all while I watched other friends get married and have babies.”
Because she was fortunate enough to be able to take a paid short-term leave of absence from her job, her professional life remained on track, but she felt significant shifts in her personal life. “I was dating someone at the time of my diagnosis, but that relationship ended shortly after we found out how advanced my disease was,” Jennie says. “I didn’t date during treatment, but I reconnected with an old acquaintance who started following my blog, and we started dating shortly after I finished treatment.”
Throughout the roller coaster of diagnosis, treatment, and recovery, Jennie says she was supported by friends and family, and she also sought counseling, which was invaluable. “I met regularly with an oncology counselor affiliated with my treatment center,” she says. “She really helped me deal with the consequences and the side effects of treatment. I also started seeing a psychotherapist for the first time in my life. He was instrumental in helping me pick up the pieces following treatment.”
Also key in maintaining perspective and emotional wellness during her journey, Jennie says, was her online community—which she formed through a blog she created to express her emotions and to keep friends and family updated—and through her engagement with Twitter and Facebook.
Ultimately, Jennie says, her experience with cancer taught her “If it doesn’t kill you, it really does make you stronger and smarter, a tad more creative, and just better overall.” In addition, she learned to embrace the opportunity to make a difference for other cancer survivors, becoming involved in local and national advocacy work. “I feel that since I got to survive my cancer that I really have a responsibility to tell my story in as many ways as I can to help educate women about the signs and symptoms of gynecologic cancer, about the absence of a diagnostic test (most women think a Pap smear tests for things beyond cervical cancer, but it doesn’t), and about the need for increased research funding for these cancers.”
Cancer-free since the end of her treatment in 2009, Jennie is now grateful for the opportunity to share her experiences and to reach out to other survivors. To newly diagnosed patients, she says, “First, don’t freak out. The news will be shocking, but you have to conserve your energy for the research and the actions that will help save your life. Delegate whatever ‘life administration’ you can to your loved ones and focus on getting answers to your treatment questions. Don’t be afraid to question everything and seek second and third opinions whenever possible. Also, think about all of the aspects of your life—whether spiritual, physical, nutritional, or social—that you can use to help fight the disease.”
Maegan Murr Isip, 26
Recently married and living in Dallas with her husband and their 120-pound chocolate lab, Maegan Murr Isip exudes positivity and a vibrant spirit that makes clear just how grateful she is for the life she has.
Having been diagnosed with Stage II triple-negative breast cancer at age 24 in August 2010 and undergoing chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, radiation, and reconstruction, Maegan makes a point to cherish each day. “Breast cancer made me feel wide awake and alive,” she says, “and it also made me realize how precious life is. Now I make sure I tell my amazing husband how much I love him, I call my mom more, and I speak with my Heavenly Father on a daily basis to thank him for giving me great strength.”
And it took great strength to weather the intense treatment that Maegan underwent. Throughout, she says, she was supported by her now-husband, Ryan, and by friends and family who were dedicated to helping her heal. “I have been blessed with wonderful family members and great friends. My friends never looked at me like I was sick and still treated me the way they always had, which was great; my mom did the venting for me by yelling at the air; if I needed to sit and cry, my mother-in-law would listen while comforting me; and my husband picked me up off the ground when I felt like I could not go on.”
Maegan also found support from her online community, which she created through a blog she used to keep friends and family updated. “I used blogging to let people know what I was going through every day in an emotional and physical way,” Maegan says. “It was healing for me because it allowed me to vent. It also allowed me to meet people who were going through the same experience.”
Now focused on maintaining her health—she is cancer-free—Maegan is moving forward but keeping close the lessons she has learned. “I learned the meaning of You are not promised tomorrow, so live each day with happiness and a grateful heart,” she says.