Ovarian Cancer Survivor Story: Claudia Garza
In March 2014, my family and I were preparing to go on a family vacation to Puerto Rico. Leading up to the trip I had been feeling a little odd – I was achy around my stomach, intimacy was painful and despite being in the middle of a cleanse, I was constipated. I decided to contact my doctor just to be safe.
I went in for a blood test which revealed that my CA-125 was over 1,000. Normal levels are zero to 35. The FDA advises against CA-125 tests as an effective early detection screening for ovarian cancer because there are too many false positives, except in people with high risk of developing the disease. Given that I hadn’t had genetic testing and the CA-125 levels were so high, my doctor suggested I get a CT scan. After the scan, he called to tell me that I needed to cancel the trip because the results looked like ovarian cancer and I needed to have surgery right away.
I was in complete shock. My first reaction was denial. The symptoms were so subtle, I had no family history of ovarian cancer, I was incredibly active, was a healthy eater and regularly exercised. This had to be someone else’s results. I got a second opinion from another doctor who thought it was ovarian cancer and said that I needed immediate surgery.
I had the surgery and my diagnosis was confirmed – it was Stage 3C ovarian cancer. My husband and I started interviewing doctors here in Denver and even traveled to Houston to figure out what my next plan of action was going to be.
When we went to appointments, my husband was my rock. He recorded every conversation that we had with the doctors. It was so much information to process in the moment, so it was incredibly helpful to listen to the recordings afterwards to help guide us in making the best decisions. When I started chemo, my girlfriend gave me a crown so I could feel like a chemo queen. Inevitably I developed that attitude as I realized that every little thoughtful gesture from loved ones lifted me up and gave me strength.
It’s important that people dealing with any cancer diagnosis realize it takes a village. There are many different facets that come into play when you are diagnosed; choosing the right surgeon, the right oncologist, your treatment plan, your attitude, diet, exercise, mental health, and a support system. All these factors form a piece of a much larger puzzle and each piece of the puzzle is as important as the next one.
“I realized that every little thoughtful gesture from loved ones lifted me up and gave me strength.”
After I started chemo treatment, I underwent genetic testing and learned that I do carry the RAD151 genetic mutation– this is sort of like the BRCA mutation’s distant cousin. I have colon cancer in my extended family on my dad’s side and this genetic mutation is closely connected with that type of cancer, which is most likely the reason I developed ovarian cancer.
This information was crucial for me to learn because I have four sisters, so it was important for each of them to get tested to see who else had potentially inherited the RAD151 genetic mutation. Two out of the four learned that they have the mutation and subsequently each one had a preventative hysterectomy.
Although I discovered that I had inherited the mutation after I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, I found joy in knowing that my journey may have prevented my sisters from having to face this same disease. Women with this genetic mutation are usually more likely to respond well to chemotherapy, and thankfully that was the case for me. My chemo treatment was very successful and it wasn’t long afterwards that I was in remission.
One of the biggest lessons I learned throughout this experience is that you can’t control everything. You can control who your doctor is, what you eat, your attitude, but ultimately, you cannot control a disease. It’s easier said than done but if you can learn to let go of the things you can’t control, you can focus on the things that you can control.
I think the hardest part of my journey was the fact that my father was battling lung cancer at the same time. My parents lived in Texas and my mom was caring for my father and then would come to see me. This time was very stressful and difficult for our family. My mom is truly the strongest person I know.
“You can control who your doctor is, what you eat, your attitude, but ultimately, you cannot control a disease.”
My journey taught me so much about myself and the importance of living every single day to the fullest. I never thought, “why me?”, because the truth is, so many women will not be as fortunate as I was. Recurrences happen all the time, but I choose not to live in fear and instead to focus on the aspects of life that make me happy.
Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get. It’s important to stay active and be in tune with your body. When you think something is off, don’t procrastinate, get it checked out. Also, live a happy life and continue to challenge yourself.
“Recurrences happen all the time, but I choose not to live in fear and instead to focus on the aspects of life that make me happy.”
After I finished chemo, my husband asked me, “Is there anything you have been wanting to do?” I had dabbled in tango dancing before we met and I knew I wanted to get back, so I did. I found a great partner who encouraged me to improve and ultimately to compete. I also decided to enter the #handstandsaroundtheworld club which has led to a lot of travel around the globe satisfying my adventurous spirit. So, figure out what makes you happy and go for it, no matter how silly it is.
My dad passed away in 2016 from that lung cancer. There’s a country song that reminds me of those difficult times and I apply its lesson to my life every day. “If you’re going through hell, keep on going, don’t look back”. Every day I look forward, I know he would have wanted me to live my life this way.