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Bush Center's Katie Kardell: Surviving Ovarian Cancer in College

Bush Center Communications Manager Katie Kardell is an ovarian cancer survivor of seven years. We recognize her courageous story in honor of Cervical Cancer Awareness Month.

Article by Katie Kardell January 31, 2019 //   8 minute read
Katie Kardell with Debra Richardson, M.D., Associate Professor of Gynecologic Oncology at The University of Oklahoma's Stephenson Cancer Center

Seven years ago I was a junior studying at SMU. My biggest concerns in life were what to wear to the boulevards, where my friends and I would catch up over dinner, or when my family was coming to visit. Cancer was the furthest thing from my mind.

The summer before my junior year I began having some pesky symptoms. I had trouble urinating, I had gained a decent amount of weight, and I generally felt "off." I knew something was wrong, but I kept putting it out of my mind. I thought maybe I was eating too many late night meals or had a UTI, something that would be an easy fix. A few months later, I knew I had put my symptoms off too long and went to the nearest urgent care.

As soon as I went to urgent care, I was told I needed to go to the emergency room immediately. Fortunately, we have family friends in Dallas who took me to UT Southwestern and waited with me until my family arrived from Florida. At the ER they found a large mass in my abdomen, but they weren't sure what it was. They suggested I see a gynecologist for more information.

My mom and I went to see the gynecologist as soon as we could. His name was Dr. Alvin Hyslop, and I remember him being the most gentle, caring doctor. After a quick examination and a few questions, he let me know I needed to see a gynecological oncologist. He assured us that everything would be okay and that this was more precautionary, but my mother and I kept thinking the same scary thoughts.

That afternoon my dad arrived in Dallas for my upcoming appointment with Dr. Debra Richardson, the gynecological oncologist Dr. Hyslop referred us to. We had no idea what to expect - we were trying to be strong for each other, but we were still worrying and wondering what on earth was going on. 

When we saw Dr. Richardson, she examined me fairly quickly to determine that I had a tumor about the size of a basketball attached to one of my ovaries. Upon our first meeting, she didn't think it was ovarian cancer due to my age. Instead, she thought the worst case scenario was a germ cell cancer. She told us I would need surgery very quickly to remove the mass, but she was leaving to go out of town later that week.

My dad begged her to operate on me the next afternoon, which is something she didn't often do. My mom even offered to bring Sprinkles cupcakes to the entire hospital. We were desperate and wanted answers. Much to our fortune, she agreed to operate the following day.

That night my parents and I went to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. To this day we still go there when we need a little extra good luck. We tried to get our minds off the looming surgery but found ourselves circling back to it. I remember my dad getting a work phone call at the dinner table and having to voice for the first time that he would be staying in Dallas for a while. It was the first time we let our emotions out and choked up.

The next day we went to the hospital early for blood work and scans. I thought the day would drag on, but before I realized, it was time for surgery. Dr. Richardson came to see my family and me before my surgery and put us at great ease. From the very beginning, we had a true connection with her and trusted her with all our hearts. The nurse gave me my "margarita," and before I knew it the surgery was over.

The next few days were spent in the hospital and are fairly hazy. I remember watching the Alabama vs. Texas A&M football game with my dad, having my mom keep me up-to-date with my sisters, gossiping, and telling me what was going on in the world. There was a lot of frozen yogurt, friends visiting, and flowers. Toward the end of my hospital stay, I remember my parents telling the nurses I needed to get out, breathe fresh air, and feel the sun. Luckily, they said it was okay.

When we left we still weren't 100 percent sure why I had this tumor or what it was. All I knew was that I had a large scar on my stomach, and we were ready to slowly start getting our lives back to normal. 

For the next month, I lived with my parents in their hotel room. Most people felt sorry for me because I had gone through something so scary, so quickly. However, that month was one of my favorite times. My parents and I had the best time laughing, creating new memories, trying all the takeout options, and watching movies. 

At my two-week post-op appointment, we knew we would be finding out quite a bit of information. I will never forget when Dr. Richardson opened the door. She asked, "Do you want the good news or the bad news first?"

I asked for the bad first, and she told me I had Stage 1 ovarian cancer. The good news was she was able to remove all the cancer, and I wouldn't have to do chemotherapy or radiation. I surprised myself by holding it together while hearing this news. I had a surge of confidence. If I had beaten this, I could do anything. 

Then I asked her, "What about my sisters? How will this affect them?" I was so worried that I had opened a can of worms of health issues. Dr. Richardson said likely nothing, but that I could go through genetic testing, just in case. I scheduled my appointment that afternoon. I remember toward the end of the appointment my emotions finally hit me, and the tears began to flow. It was a mix of gratitude, relief, and sadness, but the biggest feeling was thankfulness.

That afternoon I went back to class for the first time. My parents dropped me off and I walked in, belly pillow and all. I knew going back to school would get me back to normalcy quickly. I was fortunate my professors understood the absences and tardiness I would have for the rest of the semester. 

This September I had my final appointment with Dr. Richardson. For the last seven years, I've seen her every few months for checkups. These checkups quickly became more than exams and blood work - they were almost like therapy. Being able to feel safe for another few months that nothing had come back, that our beloved doctor had examined me, and mostly just getting to catch up on life with Dr. Richardson and her nurses reassured us all. 

Looking back on my experience, I know I'm extremely lucky. I could not be more grateful for Dr. Richardson, my family, and the entire staff at UT Southwestern. Each of these people saved my life and made me a better person. At my young age, I hope I can educate more people about ovarian cancer and hopefully help more young women recognize the symptoms of this terrible disease. 

Katie originally shared her story with the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition.