Survivor Story: Michele Collins

“On Friday, February 13, 2015, I was an active 39 year old mom with an 8 year old son and 10 year old daughter at the time of my diagnosis of high grade serous ovarian cancer.  I had no risk factors or family history for this disease, and as such, my OB GYN describes me as “every doctor’s worst nightmare.”   No one suspected that I had an orange size tumor that was rapidly growing on my left ovary, until it was seen on a scan that was ordered because of an unusual menstrual cycle. Since I was an advocate for myself and had phenomenal doctors who did everything right, I was fortunate to be diagnosed at Stage 2B, which is rare for this aggressive cancer.  

I spent 5 weeks recovering from my radical hysterectomy/debulking surgery before starting IV/IP chemotherapy.  During that time, I was in a deep, dark hole of despair.  I did not want to leave my house and felt that I no longer had anything in common with the other moms in town.  How could I listen to them complaining about their everyday “problems” when I was worried about being here to see my children grow up?  I could never imagine feeling any differently than how I was feeling, which was hopeless.  But then I started to connect with other survivors online.  One of them put me in touch with a woman who had been diagnosed at a younger age like I had been and was now a 12 year survivor.  She helped me immensely to see that this did not have to be a death sentence.  We are still friends.  And with a strong support system of family, friends, and kind and caring doctors who “gave me permission to be optimistic,” I slowly came out of my fog.

While walking around NYC with my husband after my last chemo treatment, I had a sense of pride and decided to get my first tattoo to signify all I’d been through.  It was a butterfly with the body as a teal ribbon, the color for ovarian cancer awareness.   My best friend had told me in the hospital a few days after my surgery that I was going to be leading the cancer parade someday, but I didn’t believe her.  Six months later, I participated in my first Kaleidoscope of Hope Annual Ovarian Cancer Walk in Avon, NJ.  And there I was, rocking my post cancer look, wig and all, as the leader of “Michele’s Cartel” (…our drugs save lives).    I have found that being around other ovarian cancer survivors has been the most important part of my survivorship.  I attend the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance national conference every year, speak to medical students about my story with the Survivors Teaching Students program, and am a Patient to Patient volunteer at MSK where I talk to other newly diagnosed patients who are anxious about their futures.  I also make sure to connect with my other local ovarian cancer survivor friends for monthly dinners.  It’s funny how close you become with other survivors, for they are like your sisters in a sorority.  

Cancer changes your life, often for the better. You learn what’s important and you learn to have hope.  You learn to prioritize and you learn not to waste your time.  You learn to be patient and you make sure to tell people you love them.  You learn that you are loved and you see the good in people.  You are grateful to wake up every day and you learn to be kinder. I am fortunate to have had no evidence of disease since my surgery, but I will be monitored closely for the rest of my life to ensure that I will be around to see my 14 year old daughter and 12 year old son grow up.  As a cancer survivor, you see life through a special lens and even though it may sound crazy, I am grateful for these special glasses.”