Mary (Dicey) Jackson Scroggins was diagnosed with stage IA clear cell ovarian cancer in 1996, when she was 46 years old. Through Mary’s treatment and recovery, she and her daughter Nneka deepened their strong personal bond. Mary has shown no signs of cancer since the original diagnosis and treatment. Mary and Nneka recently described their family’s cancer journey.
NNEKA: When Mommy began to experience symptoms in 1994 that could have suggested ovarian cancer—abdominal bloating, weight gain, frequent urination and excessive menstrual bleeding—her doctor attributed them to fibroid tumors. When a sonogram revealed that she had an ovarian cyst as well as fibroid tumors, her gynecologist recommended a hysterectomy. We were nervous about the surgery but completely unprepared for the aftermath—a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
MARY: Early in the surgery, my gynecologist realized that this “cyst” was unusual and wisely contacted a gynecologic oncologist to complete the surgery, which included the removal of my ovaries. The decision to call in a gynecologic oncologist might have saved my life. There is a documented survival advantage to staging and treatment of gynecologic cancers by a gynecologic oncologist. After my surgery, and fortified for survival by the intervention of the gynecologic oncologist, my family’s journey began, with Nneka always at my side. I sometimes wonder how she kept her job because she was always everywhere and being anything I needed.
NNEKA: I also sometimes wonder, not because I was often absent or neglected my professional responsibilities, but because my mind and heart were always with Mommy.
Always. On the Fridays when her chemo sessions began, I left for work with an overnight bag for “our” hospital stay. My father, her true primary caregiver, took her to the hospital and stayed there until they threw him out, generally well after visiting hours had ended. With support from my sisters Akiba and Amaal, my grandmother and my four aunts, Mommy was always covered and never out of reach of someone who loved her. Never.
MARY: I persuaded Akiba and Amaal, who were still in college, to return to school by insisting that their willingness to continue their education would show they believed I would survive. I don’t know if they accepted the logic, but it was a request they could not refuse to honor. And even when Nneka was not physically with me, I felt her presence and that of Akiba and Amaal, who were hundreds of miles away. It helped that I woke up from surgery to look directly across the room at my favorite photo of my three daughters together and one of my husband, Ed. In fact, these were placed where I would see them as soon as I opened my eyes in each of my hospital rooms.
NNEKA: Mommy had a choice to make about her follow-up to surgery—either to forgo further treatment because the cancer was stage IA, the earliest and most curable stage, or to undergo chemotherapy because the cancer was clear cell, an aggressive, rare cell type with a high recurrence rate. The only choice that made sense to the family was for Mommy to have chemo. So she did. She had six cycles of Taxol (paclitaxel) and Platinol (cisplatin), each during a two-day hospital stay. Every night she spent in the hospital during chemo, I spent with her. And my father has gone to all but one of Mommy’s appointments for 17 years of visits to her gynecologic oncologist for monitoring.
MARY: The decision to have chemo brought other choices and challenges. For example, the morning before my hair began to fall out, Nneka and I purchased a wig, which I never wore, and that evening, Ed shaved his head in solidarity.
NNEKA: During Mommy’s treatment, she and I developed a habit of scheduling predawn furniture-polishing sessions—our alone, nothing-but-the-truth time—and we are not a family that polishes furniture regularly. During these times, we had necessary, loving, difficult talks that provoked the full spectrum of emotions. We ended most sessions laughing—at nothing or at anything—because we were together and we could.
MARY: I enjoy movies, so about two months into my treatment, Ed and Nneka took me to the theater, although she was concerned about me being in crowded, “germy” places. She found isolated seats and seemed annoyed at the audacity of people to sit anywhere within two rows of us. In the same week, we went to a dinner party with her then-boss, who was a chain smoker. He started to light a cigarette, and Nneka politely but firmly informed him there would be no smoking that night. And there was none. Nneka was my buffer, my confidante, my resolute stand-in.
NNEKA: Early in her own cancer journey, Mommy was able to support other family members. One of my aunts was diagnosed with breast cancer 13 months after Mommy’s cancer diagnosis. Mommy found a support group for her but couldn’t attend the first session, so I was her stand-in. When asked to say a few words about my aunt—the person I’d come to support—I mentioned her ever so briefly and, without meaning to, lapsed into an emotional, tearful account of Mommy’s story. The entire group circled and comforted me. Our journey was still new and raw, and the outcome was uncertain.
MARY: If this account sounds like a two- or even three-person journey, it was not and is not. Cancer is a full-family experience. After my first chemo session, I was hospitalized for 11 days because of a life-threatening reaction to an anti-nausea medication. My mother, wanting to do something tangible to help me—of course, her presence alone accomplished that—came to the hospital every day and regularly braided my hair. During the first braiding session, when she left the room for a moment, Nneka whispered that braiding would make my hair fall out faster. I told Nneka that this would be our little secret. My mother returned and continued braiding. For my family, this journey has been business as usual—with love, laughter, tears and unconditional support.
NNEKA: As such journeys go, ours has been fairly smooth—scary and unnerving, with detours and a continuous but lessening sense that the road could disappear, drop from under us again. If needed, however, we will find our way again together—with hair-braiding sessions and wig purchase escapades, barricaded theater seating and furniture-polishing in the wee hours of the morning. We will again recover our ability to speak as we did after the shattering silence that followed the words “You have ovarian cancer” and continue the journey full-family.
June 27, 2014