Less than two weeks ago, on September 1, 2011, President Barack Obama officially proclaimed September 2011 as National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. According to the Ovarian Cancer Institute, ovarian cancer is the leading cause of death from gynecologic cancers in the United States. It will strike over 20,000 women this year and nearly half of them will not survive. Its symptoms are vague, resembling abdominal distress, and there is currently no effective, early detection test. As a result, the disease often goes undiagnosed.
Nancy Ramondo not only beat these odds, she beat ovarian cancer… TWICE. She has proven herself to be a golden gloves champion in the fight against this deadly disease and she is a woman you should know. This is Nancy’s inspirational story, told candidly in her own words.
For most women, your 40th birthday is a milestone into womanhood. All kinds of celebrations are planned to make this a day to remember. I, for one, know this well as I am in the party business.
My 40th on October 18, 1994 was quite the event… one that is permanently etched into my memory and the memories of my family and friends.
Instead of a table set with flowers and baubles, I was lying on a steel exam table getting an internal sonogram. I will never forget these words, “YOU HAVE OVARIAN CANCER”. Not exactly the special birthday wishes I was waiting to receive.
As I walked across East 30th Street in Manhattan from my doctor’s office, I felt an out of body experience; “This is not happening to me”, I thought. “No one in my family had ovarian cancer. This is a cruel joke. Please, someone wake me up from this nightmare.”
My doctor confirmed the result of the test and proceeded to send me for more unbearable tests. Unbeknownst to me, this was nothing compared to what lay ahead. I rolled up into the fetal position on a chair only thinking of my children, “This can’t be. They need me. I have to beat this thing. I’m strong. I can do it.”
Unfortunately, my diagnosis was late Stage III. I set out to find the best possible doctor to help me and immediately interviewed the two most prestigious specialists in New York City.
My first interview did not go very well. In the middle of our conversation I stood up and walked out, leaving my brother-in-law Robert to conclude the meeting. I knew after five minutes that I wasn’t letting this pompous idiot touch me!
Thank God the doctors that I met with at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center were my angels – Dr. William Hoskins, a leading surgeon, and Dr. David Spriggs, a renown oncologist. They were kind and gave me hope. It was the first glimpse of hope I had in weeks. Their hope made me believe I wasn’t fighting this demon alone.
Dr. Hoskins asked me to give him one year of my life and in return he would give me the rest of my life. I shook his hand and said, “Doctor, we have a deal.” I left his office smiling and ready for battle.
Nancy with her children, Lauren & Joey
Back on the home front, I needed to talk to my children, who were twelve and fifteen years old at the time. I had to explain to them that I was going to be hospitalized for about a year, but I promised them I would be fine. They believed me at first, but as time went on I got weaker, thinner and lost my hair. I could see the fear in their eyes.
The first step in my treatment was a thirteen hour surgery. I then had to endure massive doses of chemo and stem cell therapy for four months. This resulted in many return trips to the hospital for blood transfusions.
I had a countdown calendar to mark the completion of each treatment. I never slept for fear that if I closed my eyes, I would die. That made it more difficult to deal with all the tests and procedures. Eventually I exhausted myself and would doze on and off.
My doctors and nurses at Sloan were amazing, but it became very clear to me that I needed to do my part in healing my body and that is the most important advice that I would give to any woman going through ovarian or any other type of cancer. My mother Vivian also gave me strength and never left my side for one second.
I took a very proactive part in my care as well as a very spiritual part. I believe God is the Great Physician; it is in His power to heal; there is power in prayer. I had many people praying for and with me. I started my miracle basket, to which people contributed prayer cards, relics, and holy water from around the world. Every hospital aide knew that after settling me into a wheelchair, the basket accompanied me, wherever I went. My sister Maria also helped me with an imagery concept; I visualized Pac-Man eating away all the cancer cells every day. I did all I could do to heal my body. Medicine alone did not save my life.
Another angel was Dr. Norma Pestano, the mother of a close friend of my daughter Lauren. Dr. Pestano is an extraordinary cancer research doctor who uses alternative healing methods that apply high doses of vitamins and a restrictive, “primitive” diet with high levels of protein. I knew in my gut that Norma could help me, so just like with Dr. Hoskins, I made a deal with her for one year and let her guide me toward my healing. Although it wasn’t easy, as I had to make severe changes to my diet and lifestyle, having this structure and discipline empowered me to feel that I was doing my part to beat the cancer.
I was so determined to live. I researched how to add years to your life, made a list and began applying them all, such as having a pet. My son Joey always wanted a dog and I always said no, it was too much work and I certainly didn’t need anything more on my to do list. When our precious Mugsie arrived in our home, it was the best thing that happened to our family. This beautiful soul was my comfort and stood by me like a soldier until he passed away last September. I still miss him.
Look good, feel good is what they teach cancer patients. Well, you don’t need to be sick to do that. After my first round of chemo, I was too weak to leave the hospital and did not have the strength to be fitted for a wig, so my sister Patty graciously had it fitted for me. She got the color, style and fit perfect. My mom and sisters made sure I had matching hats, robes and pajamas. As ill as I was, I always had my make-up done and coordinated outfits. No hospital gowns for me! Look good, feel good.
Eventually, the long, grueling treatments and second look surgery were over. Now I had to rebuild my life, career and deal with the fear of the cancer coming back… and it did. Three years later. After just opening a new business, I was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer. I had my kidney removed and my liver shaved. I recovered remarkably and the doctors were pleased.
Chemo again. My doctor sat knee to knee with me and said, “It will return in nine months.” I looked him in the eye and said, “No, it won’t!”
This time, I chose a less aggressive treatment. I couldn’t bear the thought of more hospital stays. I would get my chemo, drink a cup of coffee to counteract the Benadryl they gave me before each treatment, and then my Mom would drive me to work at my new store. I was living and controlling my life. No one knew I was sick. I was a good actress. After I completed my treatment, I was clean of the cancer cells, but my doctor recommended I travel to Washington D.C. and become part of a research study at the National Cancer Institute. My mom and I flew to D.C. for the day and they did some procedures and tests. They were going to make an antibody to keep the cancer from returning. It took nine months to make this product and the plan was that I would then fly there once a week for treatment.
I was scheduled to begin in April but while I was away on my yearly trip with my college friends, I got a call from my husband, “the NCI canceled the study”. We later found out the treatment that I was set to receive was tainted. So that was the end of the trial.
A year later, my doctor recommended a new study at Sloan. I proceeded to go in for my first treatment when he handed me a very long document to read and sign. My husband said, “Are you really going to read all those pages?” I said, “You bet!” Thirty minutes later, the doctor returned and asked if I had any questions. “Yes”, I said. “There is an ingredient that I may be allergic to; is the fish product in the medicine derived from crab?” He wasn’t sure so he went to research it. One hour later, he came back to say I would not be able to be in the study. If given just one treatment I would die as I am highly allergic to crab. So as I said, it is absolutely essential to take a proactive part in your care. Lesson learned.
Nancy with her supportive family
As I walked out of the hospital door that day, I realized I was going to be okay. I had already passed almost two years of being cancer free. That was 1997, and here I am today – fourteen years later – to tell my story and give hope to all women fighting this horrible disease. But, cancer became my friend in an unexpected way. Battling it taught me how to live a peaceful, happy life. After 34 years of marriage, my husband and I recently divorced. Ironically, the strength I gained from my cancer experience helped me get through this profoundly difficult time.
What I learned and what I want to pass along is that life isn’t about things. It’s about being so happy inside that you beam on the outside. We need to have hope, faith and love to live the good life. We all deserve to. My story could be anyone’s… so believe in yourself and listen to your inner voice. You and only you have the power to SURVIVE! – Nancy Ramondo
Women You Should Know would like to thank Nancy for sharing her story. To learn more about ovarian cancer, we encourage you to speak with your physician.