Monday, April 4, 2011


By Anita Sarko: Ovarian Cancer Survivor

Around 6 years ago, I was post-menopausal, but began bleeding. I went to a gynecologist who immediately did a biopsy. She also took blood. Every test came back negative, but she told me that she suspected it was cancer. This is the opposite of what most people report because most doctors come up with every other excuse except cancer. Because cancer survival allegedly depends on catching it QUICKLY, this is allegedly the reason why so many people die. I emphasize the word "allegedly" because there is also a belief that, perhaps, cancer does not go through stages, but that each stage is unto itself.

Nevertheless, at some point, you need to do SOMETHING if, for some reason, your body begins to misbehave in an extreme fashion.

Though the initial tests came back negative, she sent me on an odyssey of every test you can (or can't) imagine. I even had minor surgery. Every result was negative. She was still convinced I had cancer. However, I had exhausted my funds, so I just withdrew from treatment and tests and bled for 5 years.

By the summer of 2009, I had grown terribly weak. I couldn't ride my bike, walk up steps, run, and I was having trouble breathing. My internist thought it was an asthma attack. I knew it wasn't. One day I was so weak, I could not carry home a single grapefruit! By Christmas time, I cancelled out of all holiday parties, except a New Year's Eve party I literally willed myself to. When I returned home, I collapsed in my front hall and wished I were dead. That was Jan.1, 2010. Happy New Year!

A week later, I went to Dr. Fu Zhang, an ancient herbalist in Chinatown, who had been recommended by a nurse I know. He immediately told me I was anemic and gave me a bag of really foul herbs. The next day, two things happened: I began to breathe again and my body blew up. My stomach looked like I was 9 months pregnant. I had been quite bloated for years, but, even though I had never had that sort of body and had always been extremely active, I blamed it on aging. However, this stomach was off the charts. My husband and I referred to it as “Shamu." After a week, I switched to B12 tablets. I was still breathing, but I still looked like a manatee. The next week, I returned to my internist. He agreed that it could be anemia and ordered blood tests.

The next day, I had the tests and the following day, my panicked doctor ordered me to an emergency room. I had SEVERE anemia and needed a transfusion because I was crashing. The closest emergency room was Bellevue.

In the emergency room, I met with a team of doctors because Bellevue is a teaching hospital for NYU. I was told that I was going nowhere, that I most likely had cancer and was immediately put into the gynecological oncology ward. Within days, I was again put through all those same tests I had been through 5 years earlier. The first report was that I had uterine cancer, which is very rare, but only about #3 on the women's reproductive cancer death list. Then, I was told I had ovarian cancer, which is the Great White: It has only a 20% survival rate. I was immediately scheduled for surgery. I was told that it had probably spread. By the time I was apprised of everything that might need removing or reconstructing, I thought I would be lucky if I woke up with one arm still attached. They would start chemo immediately, so I should expect to wake up with a tube coming out of me. I was warned that I would be in horrible pain when I woke up because they needed to know how much morphine to give me.

When I woke up, there was no tube. I had been informed that if there wasn't a tube, it was because the cancer had been completely removed or that it was too late. Before I could obsess on the lack of a tube, the pain hit HARD. It quickly disappeared once the morphine was pumped in.

The following day, I had to get out of bed and walk. I couldn’t get up. I was about to ask for help when I admonished myself for being such an Wuss: I’d been doing Pilates for 15 years and have been a gym regular for 30 years. It was excruciating, but I got up by myself and walked. The next day, it was 50% easier. A quick fever spiked that night, so they insisted on keeping me for another half day.

I walked out of the hospital by myself and went home. I was fine, except for a dull stomach pain. Despite reading on the Internet that I would be lying on a bed for 2 months (!), I returned to work TWO DAYS LATER.

In addition, I lost 20 lbs. Everyone told me how great I looked and they wanted to do whatever I had done to have lost all that weight so quickly. I kept replying, "No you don't!" They kept insisting they did. What a twisted world we live in…

It took me many months to come out of the closet. I am not the type who repairs with people in my face all the time telling me how well I look (except for the new trim figure) or constantly asking me, "How are you?" I just told everyone I had had anemia. No one really knows anything about anemia.

I am on a short leash for 2 years, having to go to the out-patient clinic every 3 months. Then, for 3 years, I go twice a year. I’ve just passed my first year cancer-free (knock wood). When that date arrived, I finally broke down. I think I sobbed for a full week. I could finally deal with what I had gone through.

I will not sugarcoat this. Having cancer is hell; having such a personal form is pure hell. There's nothing dignified about having a lot of people fiddling around your private parts. There's nothing wonderful about having blood taken, given and thinned every hour. My once robust and puffy veins went into hiding from being so abused. It was horrible.

I truly feel that the best way to get people to stop smoking is to put them through cancer treatment for a week so they can see what they are trying to give themselves. Draconian, for sure, but a nice firm slap of reality might be useful.

But, I beat it. All the head of my team (gloriously named Dr. Joanie Hope) could offer up as an explanation for why the cancers had stayed at stage one was that I was "one lucky woman." It's as simple as that. I required neither chemo nor radiation. This was a happy puzzlement because of how long I had shown signs.

I have so much energy now that I've had to learn to contain it. It's probably a normal amount, but, after all those years of the cancers sapping it, it originally felt like I was suddenly on really bad speed. I first went back to Pilates, then discovered Soul Cycle. Spinning and Pilates have been amazing. They’ve kept my core rock solid, despite being essentially gutted. I’ve kept the weight off. They’ve energized me in the right way and keep the extreme mood swings from my hormonal changes in check.

Two pieces of advice:

1. If you find yourself getting really tired and your life has not drastically changed, immediately have blood tests. I‘ve heard that this is the initial sign for both cancer and heart disease. If the results are negative, repeat each year. Note: No one in my family has ever had reproductive cancers, so don't rely on family histories. Also, I was told that the readings from the original tests had been correct: Cancer cells can be all through you, but be too tiny to register ... until they do. “Cancer is a very sneaky disease,” Says my current nurse-practioner, Kyoung Choi.

2. Keep yourself in the best shape possible. I can't emphasize how much this helps your recovery. The idea of lying on a couch or bed for 2 months is beyond my comprehension and should be beyond yours. I know everyone is different, but you can't go wrong with a solid foundation.

My deepest thoughts go to anyone out there who is going through this, either as the patient or their loved ones. One of my childhood friends was Gilda Radner, who put a face on this disease so many years ago. I even let them use a picture of her from my Sweet 16 party for the invites to a recent Gilda's Club gala. However, as much as I loved that lovely funny girl, I was in no hurry to see her again.
A glum or bored Gilda Radner (back row in pink dress) from my Sweet 16 album. She was a close friend (we had many sleep-overs), but she was older, so she might have been unhappy being at a party with a bunch of 15- and 16-year-olds. The older girls let me hang with them because they said I made them laugh.
I’d rather make ovarian cancer my bitch. And I was obsessed with finding a way to give back, to call attention to how important research is to this disease. Research costs money, so I began to ask around about cancer charities that I might offer my services to as a DJ. I was informed that every cancer had its own charities and I kept hitting walls. I had just about given up when I received an interesting email from Soul Cycle, They were doing a fundraiser with Ovarian Cycle called “Ready. Set. Ride!” to raise money for ovarian cancer research. I was in!

It is taking place at Soul Cycle Tribeca on April 10th from 1PM-2:30 PM in NYC. Please go to to find out other cities that this indoor cycling event is taking place.

If you would like to make a contribution, just follow the prompts on the site. If you would like to contribute to this crazed gerbil’s ride, you can access my direct page by clicking here.

I’m riding both in tribute to Genevieve Gorman, my dear friend Alison Moore’s aunt, who is in stage 4 of this horror, and as a survivor. I think it’s important to prove that there is such a thing.

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