[Note from Frolic: We are so excited to have author Heather McCollum guest post on the site today. Take it away Heather!]
Hello! I’m Heather McCollum, mom of three growing-up-too-fast kids, dog-mom of one rescued golden retriever, and wife of one handsome Highlander. I am also a writer of 16th and 17th century Scottish romance, featuring brawny, kilted warriors and fiery heroines. I spend my days surrounded by words. Being the creator of my stories, I am usually in control of the words (except when my characters refuse to do what I tell them). But back in 2011, when I had just turned forty years old, three little words took complete control of my life.
“You have cancer.”
Ovarian cancer, stage IIC. Remove all-my-baby-making-parts surgery. Five months of grueling chemo with horrible side effects. Ten more months on a clinical trial. Six more months on oxycodone so I could walk with the neuropathy pain, and then four months to wean off the oxy. Seven years later, I am still living in remission, and I plan to stay here. I have a 30% chance that the cancer will return, and if it does, I will only have about two to four years to live. I work hard not to dwell on those numbers, but it is difficult to push fear to the side, so it doesn’t “block the parade” of my life. Instead, I try to pay attention to my glorious life and use what I learned from my battle to help others who find themselves bludgeoned by those three life-shattering words.
The symptoms of ovarian cancer are very quiet and can seem like a host of other non-life-threatening ailments. There are no tests to detect it either (Pap smears detect cervical cancer). Therefore, the victims are usually diagnosed in the later stages (III and IV), giving them a very small chance to live even five years. My cancer was found because I went to the doctor for what I thought was a broken hand from getting hit by a soccer ball in a tournament. While I was with my general practitioner, I did something that saved my life. I mentioned a few of my ongoing symptoms (bloating, pinchy pain in one side, pressure on my bladder), which prompted my GP to feel my abdomen and then do a pelvic exam. My hand was not broken, but I had a 12cm mass in my abdomen that had not been there five months earlier at my annual GYN visit. Things moved very fast from there.
When they found my mass, I had no idea that my minor aches and pains and bloating could be a villain stalking me, slowly gaining ground on me like the creepy psychopath in a slasher film. If I hadn’t mentioned the other symptoms, instead planning to wait until my next annual checkup, I would not be here today. My three kids would not have their mom, and my husband, who lost his own mother to breast cancer when he was nine years old, would be living the nightmare of his childhood over again.
It took me weeks after the diagnosis/surgery to stop crying in pain and fear enough to think somewhat coherently again. Between sutures opening up inside me, more surgery to place a port-a-cath in my chest, and trying to be honest but hopeful with my kids (aged 4, 10, & 12), it was a very rough time. I met so many wonderful cancer warriors when I started chemo, and the statement I heard the most was “I had no symptoms.”
Well… the symptoms were there, but they were whispers, a murderer hiding in the shadows, only revealing himself when it is too late to get help. Like in the scary movies, the victim doesn’t hear the dramatic music in the background like the viewer. She is deaf to the whispered warnings. So, I turned my efforts toward educating women.
To give women a chance to hear the whispered symptoms, they first need to know what they are. I came up with the logo, SHOUT Against the Whisper, meaning I would “shout” until every woman knows what the whispers are, giving them a chance to hear them, report them to a doctor, and live. My husband and I had business cards printed with the symptoms and the first steps women should take if they think they have them. My friends, family, and I give thousands of them out every year.
During the year and a half that I was battling and then trying to recover, I wasn’t able to write my romances. Creating worlds and characters takes a lot of mental energy, and all my mental energy was centered on survival. I stopped writing and was even more miserable. Luckily my husband saw this correlation very clearly and told me to write, if not my stories, then what I was going through. So, I blogged through my whole cancer battle and will one day use those blog posts to create a book on how to survive the war after hearing those three little words.
Once I finished chemo and started detoxing from all the medications that had kept me afloat, the voices of my characters came back. Thoughts other than “I have cancer” and “Will I still be alive for my kids?” started to replace the terror and deep-in-the-bone exhaustion. I started believing in happy endings again, and I started to write my romances.
As I finished that first book, after returning to writing, I dedicated it to all the people who had helped me, supporting me and my family with meals, cards, and tons of love. Adding the ovarian cancer symptom list to the back of the book was an automatic and cathartic need for me. I write romance. The majority of romance readers are women. This was another way I could reach women with education that could save their lives.
I have continued to put the symptoms of ovarian cancer in the back of all my books. With each new book going out into the world, I hope and pray that the information reaches those who need to see it. It is another way that I can make what I went through into something positive. When I can force my villain (cancer) to work for something good, it helps me heal emotionally. Helping others is hugely cathartic.
Of course, when I send symptom cards and the symptom list in my books off into the world, I may never know if they will help anyone, which is fine. The symptoms might be read and then remembered years later. Or the cards might end up scattered and traveling far.
Once, though, I had a lady contact me through the SHOUT Against the Whisper Facebook page to tell me she found one of my cards in a gas station bathroom an hour away from my house. She thanked me for handing them out, because she had some of the symptoms. Reading them on the card prompted her to see a doctor who diagnosed her with a different gynecological cancer. A second woman in my local writing group contacted me with the same thank you when she was diagnosed with a gynecological cancer. And the most wonderful message came through to me on my author web site last year from a reader. She wrote:
“Heather thank you so much for all of your novels. I have almost read them all. They make me laugh and cry and I always read them in two days. I especially appreciate you writing about ovarian cancer. I was going to cancel my gyn appt thinking maybe I was in early menopause. But I didn’t after reading the end of your book. I went in and was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. I had a hysterectomy and I am cancer free. I sincerely thank you.”
I am extremely fortunate. We found my cancer early enough to fight it and win (yes, I’m owning that and not knocking on wood). After years of hard work, my dream of being a full-time writer has come true. And I can use my writing to help educate women everywhere by putting the symptoms in the backs of my books and writing articles like this one.
Thank you. Every time I can teach a woman about the whispered symptoms of ovarian cancer, it makes what I went through worth it. So, thank you for reading this article. Thank you for learning about the symptoms of ovarian cancer. Three little words changed everything in my life. I hope that my words going forward can help another woman save her own.
Know the symptoms. Save a Life.
Bloating that is persistent
Eating less and feeling fuller
Trouble with your bladder
Other symptoms may include: fatigue, indigestion, back pain, pain with intercourse, constipation, and menstrual irregularities.
If you experience any of these symptoms every day for three weeks or more, please see your GYN. They should perform a pelvic and rectal exam. If anything seems abnormal, they should refer you for a transvaginal ultrasound and a CA-125 blood test. For more information on ovarian cancer, please check out the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition – http://www.ovarian.org/.
About the Author:
Heather McCollum is an award winning, historical paranormal and YA romance writer. She earned her B.A. in Biology, much to her English professor’s dismay. She is a member of Romance Writers of America and the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood of 2009 Golden Heart finalists. The ancient magic and lush beauty of Great Britain entrances Ms. McCollum’s heart and imagination every time she visits. The country’s history and landscape have been a backdrop for her writing ever since her first journey across the pond. When she is not creating vibrant characters & magical adventures on the page, she is roaring her own battle cry in the war against ovarian cancer. Ms. McCollum recently slayed the cancer beast and resides with her very own Highland hero, rescued golden retriever & 3 kids in the wilds of suburbia on the mid-Atlantic coast.
To learn more about Heather, visit her website: https://www.heathermccollum.com/
The Wicked Viscount by Heather McCollum, out today!
1685, Scottish Highlands
Cat Campbell knows all about Nathaniel Worthington, fifth Viscount of Lincolnshire. The determined Englishman is never far from Finlarig Castle, where his sisters train women to do more than read and write. And thanks to the fiery kiss they shared nearly a year ago he is never far from her thoughts. No one ever trained her how to forget an irresistible man.
Nathaniel knows he should keep his distance from the fierce Scottish lass, but when an urgent letter from Queen Catherine calls Cat to London, he can’t resist volunteering to escort her. The tension between the two has simmered for months, but the long journey in close quarters creates a raging wildfire that could burn them both.
Secrets of their past and the treachery lurking at court put both their future together and their very lives at risk.