Why The Real Emotional Battle Began *After* I Beat Ovarian Cancer

In the quiet hours of the night, when the only sounds I hear are the low rumble of garbage trucks and the distant shudder of subway trains, I sometimes brood over the worst parts of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of 30.

Was it the initial trip to the emergency room when I was screaming in pain, not knowing the cause? Was it the subsequent emergency surgery that left me with a 9-inch scar on my abdomen and required four blood transfusions? Was it the fact that this all happened six months before my wedding, when I was supposed to go to gown fittings, but instead was stuck in ill-fitting hospital gowns?

If you had asked me at the time, I would have named any one of those things as the most difficult part. Now, two years out from my May 8, 2017 diagnosis, I have the gift of hindsight, and my answer is completely different.

I could say something vaguely self-congratulatory about how battling cancer has made me even more resilient and grateful and determined for the health that I do have. It has, I guess—but there’s a lot of darkness surrounding that glowing orb of feel-goodery that hasn’t been easy to acknowledge.

So here’s the truth: The biggest challenge for me is feeling like a total imposter trying to live my old life.

All of my old routines feel foreign and off, like suddenly being forced to write with your left hand. My body is no longer recognizable after hormonal fluctuations, new medications, and surgery scars. And I can’t help but feel bitter seeing healthy people go on with their lives, while I’m forced to think about my most traumatic life event every time I look in the mirror.

But let’s take a step back.

In May of 2017, I knew something was off with my health.

I was constantly tired, but I pegged it to wedding planning and my ClassPass obsession. I was bloated, but I thought it was a result of eating more greens and fiber (go me!). I didn’t really think anything was wrong until the morning of May 7, when I woke up feeling like there was a grand piano on my chest and a dagger in my belly, Arya Stark style.

My then-fiance, Mike, and I rushed to an emergency room in Brooklyn, where I endured a day’s worth of tests and a transfer to NYU Langone in midtown Manhattan.

The next morning I had an MRI, which detected a 17-centimeter mass in my abdomen (picture a large, genetically modified grapefruit) that had ruptured and was bleeding freely. My type of cancer, granulosa cell tumor of the ovary, is incredibly rare; it accounts for only around 2 percent of ovarian cancers, according to the Genetic and Rare Disease Information Center. It’s relatively slow-growing, meaning it doesn’t respond well to chemo, and surgery was going to be my best line of defense. I needed to have an emergency laparotomy that would open me up from navel to pelvis.

I woke up feeling like there was a grand piano on my chest and a dagger in my belly.

Hours later, I awoke in the recovery room, groggy and out of it, vaguely aware that I had multiple IV lines in various veins on my arms and hands and was covered in layers upon layers of blankets. I heard surgeon say the terms “ruptured tumor” and “cancer,” but not much else about my diagnosis.

I remember thinking about my approaching wedding, and it felt like the life I had been planning and yearning for was combusting into ashes. Instead, I stood before a new, uncertain path littered with pain, fear, and the lingering smell of antiseptic.

Beth Stebner

My recovery was a months-long slog tempered by visits from friends and round-the-clock reminders on my phone to pop yet another prescription pain medication. I had to take five weeks off from the new job that I’d started only months before. But wedding planning was a welcome distraction, allowing me to fuss over canapés and card stock instead of existential dread.

To my surprise, the uphill battle began when I was declared cancer-free.

In the weeks and months surrounding my operation, I had an army of surgeons, oncologists, and radiologists pouring over me. I had benchmarks to meet: a day after surgery, shuffle to the bathroom in hospital slipper socks; a week after, try walking around the the hospital wing; climb a flight of stairs, then two. I’d have a scan or a checkup to see how my scar was healing.

But eventually, my barrage of appointments, check-ups, and blood draws stopped, and I plunged into my old life like a goldfish into a fishbowl: disoriented and in shock, without any idea of how to carry on.

I stood before a new, uncertain path littered with pain, fear, and a lingering smell of antiseptic.

Just like that, my disability leave was over, and I was back at work in early August. The same tasks awaited me, the same commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan, the same faces greeted me day to day. I was grateful to be allowed back into my old life, even if I was still bloated and exhausted.

On October 22, my oncologist gave me a clean bill of health—or No Evidence of Disease (NED), the medical phrase commonly used to signify when there are no physical signs of cancer present. This was a week and a half before my November wedding.

Photo by Photo Pink

It wasn’t until after I got back from my honeymoon in Paris that everything hit: I didn’t have planning as a distraction anymore, and my defenses were down from the physical toll recovery took. The existential dread came flooding in. I realized I was no longer the same person I was Before Cancer.

I carried more sadness, anger, anxiety, and fear than I’d ever had before—or even during—my health scare. I was terrified that the second I became comfortable in my old routines my disease would return, taking away everything that I worked so hard to rebuild.

I felt alone with my thoughts and wounds. I was angry at my body, and then my mind, for betraying me. I was angry at friends for being MIA, at the world for being cruelly unfair. For months, I carried on, going through the motions but feeling totally numb. I was brilliant at pretending everything was okay (thanks, theater background), but I was simultaneously waiting for someone to call me out and say I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t healthy enough to work, to go on vacation—in short, to live.

Stebner taking a selfie in Stolkholm, October 2018
Beth Stebner

I’ve always considered myself an empath, but I also found it much harder to relate to people who weren’t dealing with things that aren’t potentially fatal diseases. It was (and still is) difficult to watch other people going about their daily lives and fretting about what I’d describe as Healthy People worries. A sprained ankle. A baby who won’t sleep. A persistent cold after a vacation, or even allergies. The selfish, scared person in me wants to retort, “At least you’re not dealing with insane hospital bills—or a lifetime of monitoring and scans and blood draws and checkups and forever being on first-name terms with an oncologist.”

This type of emotional distress and resentment after cancer treatment is very common.

It’s not everyone’s reaction, but many people do feel this way, says Bonnie McGregor, PhD, a licensed clinical health psychologist and executive director at the Orion Center for Integrative Medicine in Seattle. “Physical healing and treatment takes a lot of energy, and emotional healing takes second place,” explains McGregor, who specializes in helping people navigate a cancer or chronic illness diagnosis.

She tells me something that she shares with her own patients: There is no going back. You can’t be who you were before because cancer has fundamentally changed you. “Your work now is to integrate what you’ve learned and become a more evolved person than you were before,” McGregor says.

Courtesy of the author

McGregor suggests using mindfulness meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy to help reframe your negative perspective and your outlook moving forward, and to ultimately think of your cancer journey as an opportunity to become stronger. As McGregor tells me, “Growth comes from adversity. You can’t get stronger muscles if you don’t lift weights, and you don’t grow emotionally if you don’t have some larger struggle.”

So when I get trapped in a negative spiral, I force myself to take a beat and short-circuit those feelings. As my therapist (a wonderful human who specializes working with cancer survivors) has patiently reminded me, no one complaining about their hay fever or their little terror of a baby that won’t sleep through the night has any ill-intent against me when voicing their own complaints. Or, put another way, they’re not trying to taunt me with their own, completely valid problems to make me miserable.

In trying moments, I log off of Instagram, take a break from Facebook, and repeat a little mantra I came up with: “Everyone’s going through something, which has meaning to them, so take a breath, smile, and be kind.” I have to admit, it doesn’t always work, and I sometimes need to throw myself a little pity party and mope for a few minutes, but I generally feel better about everything.

I also carve out time in my day to meditate and spend weekends hiking with my husband and our goldendoodle. There are also a lot of Epsom salt baths in my life now, plus CBD oil and even some crystals, because why not?

Photo by Mary Kang

The ultimate goal, for me at least, is to focus on the good, while taking the bad in stride.

Right now, for example, I have a large cyst on my remaining ovary that may or may not turn out to be a recurrence; but until my medical team tells me to worry, I won’t. It’s (quite literally) out of sight, out of mind.

While I’ll never know a life without the shadow of disease hanging over me, I feel a resilience that I don’t think I would have found if I didn’t get diagnosed with cancer, and a confidence that I can handle whatever might come next. And that, McGregor says, is the takeaway to hone in on: “Ultimately, you wouldn’t wish this on anyone, but you wouldn’t trade it, either. That’s the goal.”

And I hope that’s true. Because I need it to be. Because it has to be. Because it will be.

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