In the fall of 2008, I had just started teaching math at a new school. I was in a lot of pain in my side, but tried to ignore it and push my way through the school days. One Monday morning my headmaster called me and said, “Something is wrong. It’s not like you’re that calm. You have to go to the doctor or go home.”
I went straight to the emergency clinic and told them my symptoms – gas, fatigue, no appetite, and pain in my lower back and sides. I looked like I was pregnant and I almost wondered if I was pregnant (my husband and I had been trying to conceive for two years). The doctor sent me for a CT scan that showed a large mass between my spleen and ovary. The next day we met with an oncologist and scheduled a vaginal ultrasound a few days later. And then we were sent home.
I spent the next few days crying and stressed out about what might be wrong with me. Two nights later, in the middle of the night, I had excruciating pain on my right side. My husband took me to the hospital where they performed emergency surgery. When I woke up, I saw an incision from the center of my breasts in my pelvic area. The surgeons had performed a full hysterectomy and removed my spleen, appendix, and omentum.
I was told I had stage 3C ovarian cancer. I just wanted to know what my chances of survival were. “You’re not a number,” said the doctor. “Don’t look at the statistics.” But he didn’t know I was a math teacher. I teach algebra – numbers are everything to me!
I started chemotherapy in late September and finished it in February 2009. And then I was cancer free! I was feeling pretty good, other than going straight into menopause. Hot flashes hit me hard. My husband bought a hand-held fan that I turned on all night. The most difficult problem was intimacy. We took advice to help us with this. And every three months I did a physical exam, a pelvic exam, a chest exam, and a blood test.
And then, just a year later, in 2010, my CA125 counts increased so they did a CT scan. One tumor was found in my lungs and another in my pelvic area. I went through a clinical trial for treatment and started chemotherapy. When I finished, it seemed like the tumors had been surgically removed. I knew … until 2015.
Gonzales and her husband
In 2015, small tumors were found in my pelvic area. I removed it and had chemo. I was also tested and identified as having the BRCA gene. It was interesting because we had a lot of cancer in my family. My mother was told she had stomach cancer in 1996 and she went straight from diagnosis to the hospice. Since we lived in the border town of El Paso, Texas, she crossed the border into Juarez, which was much cheaper. However, she was not treated properly and, unfortunately, did not live long.
In 2017 the cancer came back in my pelvic area. I had no symptoms and felt fine. But I was so in tune with my body that I could only feel that it was there. I asked my doctor to do my CA125 and a CT scan. When we found out about the new tumors, I decided to wait until school was ready to have an operation. Work helps me find purpose and I knew I could wait a month until summer.
Along with the surgery, my doctor and I agreed to take a PARP inhibitor (a type of targeted cancer drug) to treat the cancer cells left behind from the surgery. About 9 months after my treatment, we found more tumors, but this time in my stomach. We decided to find a clinical study on immunotherapy. Since this was a study, I had to have frequent scans and blood tests. The scans showed that one of the tumors was growing and attaching to my small intestine, causing internal bleeding. Not only did I have to abort the process, but I also had my worst surgery ever. The surgeons removed some of my intestines because I had a lot of adhesions, which led to significant gastrointestinal problems. And now, after a terrible operation, I had to start chemotherapy. It was my only option.
I had lost weight and gained weight through all the treatments. I had seen my scars open and close like zippers to remove more tumors. But nothing prepared me to lose my hair. I had lumps out of my head. I lost my eyebrows. I lost my nose hair which resulted in my always having a runny nose. I lost the hair on my arms and legs (which actually didn’t bother me that much). And it just made me cry.
I was so concerned that my nieces and nephews considered me sick. My husband told me whenever I was ready we could shave it. And when we did, we actually had fun – he gave me a mullet first and then a mohawk. My nieces and nephews told me that they honestly prefer me with hair, but they are not afraid of me. You think now I look like my bald brother.
I finished my chemotherapy in April 2019 and am now in maintenance. I also take an estrogen blocker and medication for my osteopenia. I get blood tests every four weeks.
All this time I kept working. I switched from teaching to school counselor which was a blessing. I wanted to do my job regardless of whatever I was going through. My employer has been extremely understanding and supportive. I was very transparent with everything I was going through and they worked on my schedule. The school also launched Teal Fridays in September for Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. All children now know about ovarian cancer. You “teal out” a home basketball game. And there are awareness-raising posters throughout the school. It’s incredibly supportive.
Gonzales on “Teal Friday”
I did five repetitions and none of them were easy. People ask how you do it, but you just do it. It’s okay not to be okay And it’s okay to ask for help when you need it. We officially started distance learning this year and I miss my students terribly. But I try to stay hopeful and positive through everything. And I just focus on the now.
This resource was created with the assistance of Merck.