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I'm Not Waiting to Live

by Melissa J. Gallagher

Inspiration image

Melissa Gallagher with her daughters, Leah Faith and Paige Hope, and her husband, Matthew

Patience is a necessary virtue. We all have heard countless times throughout our lives that in order to succeed, we must be patient. To achieve what we want in life, we sim­ply must wait. I find myself repeatedly telling my own children, “Please, be patient. Wait.” But there are certain situ­ations in which we can’t wait; we have to act. Fighting cancer is one of them.

In 2005, at age 26, I was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer: small cell carcinoma of the ovary, hypercalcemic type. After repeatedly being told that my cancer had an average survival rate of three months, I was determined to create some new statistics.

Various factors contributed to my survival, including my age, overall health status, stage of disease, location, and plain good luck. But I believe there is one reason why I am alive today: I didn’t wait.

I didn’t wait to address my symp­toms. I didn’t wait to find oncologists who were willing to mix statistics and data with just the right amount of hope and optimism. I didn’t wait to live.

When I began experiencing symp­toms of what I would learn was ovarian cancer, my gynecologist determined that a large cyst was to blame, and I was scheduled for surgery two weeks later. Instinctively, I knew that two weeks would be too long to wait. I ended up having surgery only a week and a half later, and by a stroke of luck, it was performed by an oncologist who dis­covered my tumor.

I was determined to create some new statistics.

Once I was officially diagnosed with this rare cancer, I was thrust back into the waiting game. I called physicians around the world and waited when I was placed on hold. I scheduled appoint­ments and waited for them to arrive. I waited for my name to be called in waiting rooms, and then I waited again to see doctors in exam rooms.

I had come to accept that a certain amount of waiting would be necessary, but when I contacted a major cancer center and was told I’d need to wait a few weeks just for an appointment, I knew that this was one of those times when waiting just wasn’t an option. So I called back, sometimes several times a day. I explained my situation and its urgency over again until I hit the jackpot and appealed to that one person who was willing to listen. I got in.

Once I began treatment, which included three different types of chemotherapy drugs and an additional surgery, I knew I couldn’t wait until it was over to resume my life. So I kept on living. It was hard to live life to the fullest some days, but other days felt more full. I’ll never forget stepping outside the hospital doors on the day of my last treatment, the sun shining and the fresh March air on my face. Certain aspects of life were magnified and brilliant. The sun was almost blinding. Air had a life of its own. My feet were overly sensi­tive to the ground they touched. All of my senses were heightened. I knew sincerely that I was still alive.

When my cancer came back four years later, I found myself in the emer­gency room, waiting. I waited for a scan, and then I waited for the results. I called doctors and waited on hold. But I knew I couldn’t afford to wait to have the large tumor that was growing inside me removed. My life depended on it. I contacted the same major can­cer center, and rather than accept that I would have to wait for an appointment two weeks later, I managed to find a new physician and have a successful surgery a few days later.

People who don’t know me can’t believe that I was diagnosed on a Thursday and operated on by a new doctor the following Monday. The people who do know me can’t believe I waited that long! I won’t wait to live. You shouldn’t either.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Melissa Gallagher is a two-time small cell ovarian cancer survivor living in West Islip, NY.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2014.