You never meet someone by chance. Never. There is always a reason.
I met Keonda for the first time over coffee. We had decided to meet at a famed, local coffee shop, Cocoa Cinnamon, on Labor Day. I thought she had the day off like I did because of the holiday. I didn’t question that even once. Arriving early I ordered my Americano and sat out front to enjoy the perfect weather and abundant sunshine. I soon saw a little, white SUV barreling down Foster Street and into the parking lot. It was Keonda.
Moments later she popped by the front of the coffee shop where I was sitting at a picnic table. She smiled, waved and came right over. She greeted me with a hug and handed me a puppy before heading inside to order her drink. That was it. We were friends. Maybe it was partially the puppy, but I instantly felt a true friendship with Keonda.
She came back out and we discussed life, her new puppy, our city and ever-so-casually Keonda mentioned she has cancer. She spoke of it as though I knew and I guess somewhere in my mind I had thought that was the case. It seemed impossible. Keonda doesn’t look sick, but rather healthy. We are the same age. She’s beautiful, vibrant and bursting with energy that is warming, inspiration and contagious. She’s a force. How could she possibly have cancer?
I think that is the reaction of many when they find out a loved one has cancer and it’s unfathomable to think how someone with cancer feels. It’s a feeling far too many will experience as the American Cancer Society estimates that 1 in 75 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in their lifetime. According to their estimates 22,280 women will be diagnosed this year with ovarian cancer and over 14,240 will die from ovarian cancer. In women between the ages of 35 to 74 years of age this type of cancer is the 5th highest cause of cancer related deaths.
I hate evening thinking about Keonda being one of those statistics. She’s not numbers, she’s a beautiful, wonderful human being. She’s my friend. She’s read the same facts. She was given her diagnosis of stage 3 ovarian cancer in a shocking and abrupt manner. Bad medical news has come her way on several occasions since and she keeps her head held high with a smile across her face. How does she do it?
When I asked how she and her people were doing with the recent blow of bad news, her response said it all. “I’m doing good. My people... I don’t think that they’d ever reveal any fear. We try not to operate in that capacity. They were encouraging and optimistic.”
Her resilience, faith and ability to take all of this in stride is awe inspiring. I asked Keonda to share her story.
Keonda: To be perfectly honest, as a born cynic with hypochondriac tendencies. I had already processed the scare of a cancer diagnosis when an MRI revealed a small tumor in my pituitary gland in 2012. I’d had a migraine with incessant pain for 3 months straight accompanied by absence of menstruation before I finally went to the doctor to see if something more serious was awry.
The tumor, although benign, caused an imbalance of hormones that put my mental state and my body in a perpetual pregnancy with no baby to show for it. I produced milk, gained weight, had mood swings, and food cravings until medication got those symptoms under control and I begin to menstruate again.
Treatment for this tumor included an MRI every 6 months to a year and a visit with the endocrinologist every 3 months and I began to chart my menstrual cycles.
In the early winter of 2016 (January or February), I began having what I thought was symptoms of the pituitary adenoma. On my visits to the endocrinologist I would tell her that my period cramps were worse than they had ever been and I thought I could feel when my body was ovulating.
I noticed that during what would be my ovulation week, there would be pain in my abdomen that felt worse than the shedding of the ovum. It was difficult to sit down or get in and out of the car and I found myself having to be cautious going up and down stairs. I was also very fatigue and didn’t have the desire to do much of anything but sleep. Finally, one day the pain was so great, a friend of mine forced me to go to the ER.
After hours of tests, scans, an evasive ultrasound, and more pelvic exams than I care to admit, a very nervous young resident came into my room and explained that my right ovary was engulfed in a “humongous” cyst about the size of a football.
To give me an even clearer perspective of its size, she equated it to a woman being five months pregnant. Oh how I wished it were a baby instead. A few days later I met with my surgeon for yet another pelvic exam and she assured me that at my young age of 33, the probability of having cancer was low and we scheduled the removal of one ovary and the attached fallopian tube.
A week later I was back in the ER due to a pain so unbearable, I could not sleep. Pain radiated from my abdomen all the way to my lower back and chest, and then down to my legs. I was sent home with narcotics and a prognosis of a cyst on my left ovary rupturing. My concerns for my condition started to heighten and inside I had a lot of uncertainty about what I was being told by doctors.
Sheila: How did you react when you found out?
Keonda: Well, I already had a trip planned. The doctor told me to go ahead and go. I had already paid. I didn’t want my friends to feel bad. I told them to go without me. They said no. They wanted to make sure I was okay.
Instead of getting a second opinion, I went off to decompress in the beautiful island of Jamaica and returned home in time for a live concert. As Beyoncé danced her heart out in the rain at Carter Finley Stadium, my friends shouted happy birthday to me and I turned a soaking wet 34.
Sheila: That’s a lot to go through in a short period of time. That has to be a lot to process. Can you walk us through where you’re at now? You had the great experiences of Jamaica, Beyoncé, your birthday and then what?
Keonda: 4 months, 1 week, and 6 days post my diagnosis of stage 3 ovarian cancer, and the reality of having a cancer story to share is still very surreal. Staring into the liquid of a freshly brewed k-cup, in my favorite oversized mug that reads “Mrs. Always Right, I found myself questioning whether I was in denial.
On May 11th, 2016, I was still very much in an anesthetic haze as my surgical Gynecological-Oncologist whisked in the room purse on her shoulder, laying her tiny hand on my arm, broke the news. “Ms. Hawkins,” she said, “Unfortunately we had to do a full hysterectomy, as the cyst turned out to be ovarian cancer.”
I replied with a quick "okay" and head nod and repeated this action as she continued to explain the treatment plan and next visit expectations. As quickly as she had whisked in, she was gone and my support system of family and friends sat quietly in my hospital suite awaiting my reaction to what they had already learned during my surgery.
“Did she really have her purse on her shoulder?” was all I could muster as I searched for a way to process something I had no control over and could not change.
Sheila: Part of your story that you have shared with me in the last few weeks make it sound like there were shortcomings in communication in regards to your medical treatment. You're not angry or bitter about that. Instead, you’ve jumped in and advocate for your own health, which is the number one thing women are encouraged to do. As a whole speaking up for ourselves isn’t our strong suit and we generally dismiss medical symptoms as menstruation or hypochondria. You have risen above both and it saved your life. Can you share a time when you first started speaking up for yourself?
Keonda: When this started earlier this year, I felt my symptoms and health condition were taken for granted. I told her. I told my endocrinologist. She asked if I wanted a referral to another endocrinologist. No explanation.
Sheila: Do you have a family history of cancer?
Sheila: What has been the biggest surprise for you in all this?
Keonda: Having cancer was the biggest surprise.
Sheila: What has been the hardest part?
Keonda: Not being able to have children. I’m not going to lie. That was the hardest part. Losing the ability to have children was the hardest part. But then my question was lord what do you want me to do. Despair wasn't my initial reaction. I’ve had moments, but that wasn’t my initial reaction.
Also, the reality of how my life has had to change now. I have to spend a part of my time in the doctor’s office.
Sheila: What has been the most positive aspect or biggest blessing in all this?
Keonda: The time that I have been able to spend with family and friends.
Sheila: How has life changed?
Keonda: I hate to sound cliché but this era of my life has truly been the best of times and the worst of times. Being forced to stop everything to focus on my health has brought so much balance and a renewed sense of optimism over my life.
I have spent more time with my family and friends than I have in years. I’ve been able to support charitable organizations and connect with new people in ways that my reserved personality never allowed me to. My faith has been tested in ways that I never imagined but I still remain positive and prepared to fight each day.
Sheila: What do you think is most important for women to know about ovarian cancer?
Keonda: It’s difficult. One of the things I mentioned that the symptoms are the same as menstruation. I would recommend an ultrasound with a pap smear. You can’t tell by just looking up there you know. A blood test if you can.
Sheila: As you go through treatment, what has been the most helpful for you?
Keonda: My friends and family have been a great support system. Especially my "chemo crew." My mom and friend Rhonda come with me to every appointment and other friends and family members drop in from time to time. I also get random hugs from strangers who learn about my story through social media sharing. It feels good to know that so many people are praying for me.
Sheila: What, if anything, would you do differently?
Keonda: Get a second opinion when I found the first growth
Sheila: What resources have been the most helpful for you?
Keonda: Initially I was like a google or WebMD freak, but I would not call that helpful. I have dealt with this differently than anything else. Normally I would be obsessive. Outside of my faith and support, I wouldn't say anything else has been helpful.
Sheila: If you could give anything at all to a woman who just received the same diagnosis as you, what would it be?
Keonda: I guess what everyone tells me. I don’t want to sound cliché, but stay positive. Make sure you make the decision over your treatment. Explore your options. Learn what you can learn about you your treatment.
I feel fine, but on paper I’m not. I don’t identify with that. I don't feel that. Don’t get wrapped up in it.
Sheila: What would you like to share with other women?
Keonda: My hope for women who learn of my story is that you never allow adversity or an unexpected change of events to deter you from your purpose. Give God the glory in all things and He will give you the strength to conquer anything that stands in the way of you and His promise.
Thankful that Keonda chose to share her story. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms like Keonda did or have concerns about your health, speak up. Contact your doctor and take an active role in your health. Don’t fret about being seen as a hypochondriac. Other people’s opinions have nothing to do with your health. Speak up.
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