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Interview with Joanie Shawhan, Author of “In Her Shoes – Dancing in the Shadow of Cancer.”

I am delighted to have as my guest this week, Joanie Shawhan. Joanie is the author of “In Her Shoes – Dancing in the Shadow of Cancer.” Welcome, Joanie!

“Thank you, Edwina, for hosting me. I am glad to be here to share my story.”

Then let’s get started!

I understand you were an RN at the time of your ovarian cancer diagnosis. Did you see the signs of your own cancer and get an early diagnosis, or did cancer sneak up on you? How did being a nurse factor into how you dealt with your diagnosis?

I was not prepared for a diagnosis of cancer. I had a few episodes of nausea the summer before my diagnosis. The weird thing about these episodes was they prompted me to ask myself, Could this be ovarian cancer? But as a nurse, these bouts of nausea relating to ovarian cancer made no logical sense to me because they were so infrequent. Therefore, being a nurse didn’t really work in my favor because I rationalized the symptoms away because they were atypical.

When I rolled over in bed and felt a mass in my abdomen, I brushed it off as a uterine fibroid and my doctor concurred. She ordered an abdominal and pelvic ultrasound to confirm a fibroid, but instead the test revealed ovarian cancer.

What are the signs of ovarian cancer and what tests are done to diagnose it?

Some of the signs of ovarian cancer are based on acronym called BEAT.   

B—bloating that is persistent.

     E—eating less and feeling fuller.

     A—abdominal pain.

     T—trouble with bladder or bowels. A woman may feel like she has a urinary tract infection or misdiagnosed with an irritable bowel.

The problem with ovarian cancer is there are no diagnostic tests. A pap smear will not diagnose ovarian cancer. So, if ovarian cancer is suspected, a woman needs an abdominal/pelvic ultrasound. The doctor will also order a Ca125, a blood test for the ovarian cancer marker and an abdominal/pelvic CT scan. The Ca125 is not used for screening purposes because many other abdominal issues can give rise to false positives, and some ovarian cancers will not cause the Ca125 to be elevated. Our best defense is to be aware of our own bodies and listen for the symptoms that mimic other ailments, yet whisper ovarian cancer.

Share one of the life lessons that happened during your cancer journey.

No matter what we are going through, God is still with us, he doesn’t change, and he will use what we have been through to offer hope and encouragement to others.

I’m amazed by the many women I have met on this journey who have faced cancer with courage, dignity and joy.

How has your cancer diagnosis changed the course of your life?

My diagnosis of cancer has totally changed my life. I never dreamed I would write a book. When I was diagnosed, there were no Gilda’s clubs, Facebook groups, or support groups for ovarian cancer. I didn’t know anyone else who had ovarian cancer besides Jill who was diagnosed at age 13. Were there other survivors? So I decided I would write the book I would’ve wanted when I received my diagnosis of ovarian cancer. After I wrote my story, I felt there were other women with encouraging stories to share, women whose cancer experiences were different than mine. So, I interviewed 11 other women and added their stories to the book to make the book relatable to more women.

In the process of writing, I have made new connections with people in the writing community by attending writing conferences and getaways. I am a member of a writing critique group, Friends of the Pen, and WordGirls, a coaching and writing community for Christian women established by Kathy Carlton Willis. I continue to write articles of encouragement, blog on my website, and advocate for ovarian cancer awareness.

When a patient is diagnosed with cancer, what goes through their minds? How can friends and family help?

A diagnosis of cancer is a huge shock. Some still view the C-word as a death sentence, which is not necessarily true with all of the advances in treatment.

As far as friends and family helping, there’re many ways to show your love and support: meals, housekeeping, childcare, errands, rides, and lawn care. Encouraging cards, texts, gifts, visits (call first). My sister sent me my first set of hats, determined to make hats fun. Her attitude proved to be infectious. A friend accompanied me when I selected a wig and we planned a fun day around that appointment. Another held my hand when I had my head shaved.

Your book, In Her Shoes, gives a lot of tips to help the patient through chemo and radiation. What are some of the tips you can share with us today?

I think one of the things I found important is to have someone with you when going to appointments. We’re often really stressed out and won’t remember everything that is said. On top of that, chemobrain enhances forgetfulness. It’s helpful to have someone with us who can write things down or validate what we heard because we can walk out the door and ask, “What did the doctor say about…?”

The fatigue from chemo is like having the worst flu ever so it’s important to ask for help and delegate. Pace yourself and plan rest times. Decide in advance what activities you will do and do those things that bring you joy. Sometimes one of the hardest things is to let go of those tasks you can no longer perform.

If you’re having any issues that aren’t being taken care of at home whether it’s pain or nausea or something doesn’t look right, feel right, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor or your clinic for help.

Come back on Wednesday to read part two of my interview with Joanie Shawhan.

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The Whisperer

I am so pleased to have Joanie Shawhan as my guest blogger today. Joanie and I met two years ago at a WordGirls Writing Retreat Weekend. Joanie is a survivor of ovarian cancer – so she knows first-hand about what she writes.

The Whisperer

by Joanie Shawhan

Stop. Listen! Do you hear the whispers of ovarian cancer? This insidious disease assaults over 20,000 unsuspecting women per year and is the most lethal of all female cancers. Since there are no screening tests, it is often diagnosed in the latter stages.

Despite my background in oncology nursing, I missed the whispers of ovarian cancer. Over the course of several months, I experienced nausea, mistaking these episodes for the flu. Fleeting thoughts of ovarian cancer crept into my mind, but I dismissed them. I rationalized. This nausea is too infrequent to be ovarian cancer.

 But in September 2006, I rolled over in bed and felt a hard grapefruit-size mass in my abdomen. The whisperer roared.

My doctor thought it was a uterine fibroid, but we needed to schedule an ultrasound. In the darkened room, the ultrasound technician furrowed her brow and shot me a glance. Something was wrong.

After examining the images, my doctor announced her verdict—ovarian cancer—the size of a cantaloupe. She rattled off the tests and surgery that needed to be scheduled. Words spilled over her lips, sounding foreign and distant. I sat numb, frozen. Is she talking to me?

I had witnessed the devastating side effects of chemotherapy suffered by my patients, and vowed that I would never undergo chemo. But now, I felt powerless to carry out this resolution. The side effects of the drugs terrified me: baldness, fatigue, body aches, nausea, vomiting, and a life-threatening allergic reaction.

My nursing scrubs and shoes gave way to tieback gowns and skid-free gripper socks. I was one of them, dragged through the theme park of cancer.

Today, I am cancer free. I lost myself to ovarian cancer, but in losing myself, I found a new purpose and calling in my life—to advocate for and educate women regarding ovarian cancer. One way I do this is by writing encouraging articles for women undergoing chemotherapy.

September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Stop and listen for the symptoms that whisper. The life you save may be your own.

 Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer:

  •   Pain or pressure in the pelvis, abdomen or lower back
  •   Abdominal bloating or a sense of fullness
  •  Nausea, constipation, diarrhea, gas or indigestion
  •  Urinary frequency or urgency
  •  Fatigue

If you experience any of these symptoms, consult your doctor.

joanieshawhanJoanie Shawhan is an ovarian cancer survivor and a registered nurse. She writes encouraging articles for women undergoing chemotherapy. Her publishing credits include Coping with Cancer magazine and God Still Meets Needs. She speaks to medical practitioners in the Survivors Teaching Students program. Check out her blog at www.joanieshawhan.com