My ovarian cancer story: From marathon runner to cancer survivor and back again


by Guest Contributor

Mar 29, 2024

I am a wife, a mother, a nurse practitioner, an ultra-marathon runner and, most recently, an ovarian cancer survivor. I was diagnosed with stage 3c ovarian cancer on Feb. 2, 2022.

At the time, I was in the best physical shape of my life due to my love of running. Then, in the span of a week, everything changed.

Something just wasn’t right: The first symptoms of ovarian cancer

I first noticed the abdominal distention but chalked it up to “happiness pounds,” as Kenneth and I had only been married 10 months. But then the amount of food I was eating at each meal slowly decreased, but the weight didn’t.

Then one Saturday I woke up with low pelvic pain. It was mild, so I ignored it, thinking it was nothing more than a muscle strain from running. I met friends for our weekly run as usual.

Over the course of the following week, my abdominal distention and pain began increasing. Pants that fit me perfectly the week before felt two sizes too small.

By Wednesday, I was taking ibuprofen three times a day to make it through work. On Friday, I told Kenneth the pelvic pain and abdominal distention were worse.

“I feel like I’m four months pregnant,” I said.

He urged me to go to the doctor, but it was late on Friday night. I told him I would call on Monday.

The next morning, I met the girls again for our weekly run. Every footfall jarred my abdomen, causing pain to shoot through me. I wasn’t sure how I would finish the run.

Just when I was about to speak up, one of my friends asked if we could stop running and just walk. She wasn’t “feeling it today.” I’d never been so relieved to walk in my life.

I went home and took a shower and as I dried off, I looked at my profile in the mirror. I knew I’d gained some weight since the wedding, but this was ridiculous! I really did look pregnant.

I didn’t know what was wrong, but something definitely was. And I was not waiting until Monday to find out what. My doctor’s office has urgent care hours on Saturdays, so I grabbed my purse and went.

The nurse practitioner examined me and ordered an ultrasound, but I would have to wait until Monday. I spent the rest of the weekend alternating pain relievers and trying not to worry.

My ovarian cancer diagnosis

On Monday morning, I called the hospital and was in the ultrasound room by 9:00 AM. By the time I left, I wanted to cry. I would have to wait for the radiologist to read it, but I already knew it was bad.

I’ve been a nurse for over 30 years, and no one gets an ultrasound that lasts 45 minutes with what felt like a million pictures unless there is something to see. Plus, the doppler reading showed that whatever it was, it had a pulse. My nurse part of my brain knew the answer, but the rest of my brain refused to acknowledge it.

In a state of denial, I went home to wait for the results that would be in later that afternoon. Finally, the phone rang, and it was my doctor’s office. They told me it looked like ovarian cancer and they were putting in a referral to an oncologist at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.

I hung up the phone and sat on the edge of my bed in shock. I had suspected it, but even that suspicion did not spare me the shock of confirmation.

My brain refused to work. I just sat there, a deer in the headlights, unable to comprehend what I’d just been told.

Two days later, I was in the office of Colin Koon, MD, gynecologic oncologist on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center. My husband sat beside me, holding my hand as Dr. Koon reviewed my ultrasound results and explained the additional testing needed to confirm the diagnosis.

The days that followed were full of oncology appointments, lab tests, CT scans, biopsies and port placements. I was swept along in a current of urgency and shock.

My cancer antigen 125 (CA125), the blood test that detects protein on the surface of ovarian cancer cells, was 1,195. The normal range is 1-35; anything greater suggests ovarian cancer.

My CT results showed a 5-centimeter tumor above my liver, an 8-centimeter tumor on my right ovary and various other small tumors scattered within my abdomen.

One week later, the biopsy results confirmed I had stage 3c ovarian cancer.

I finally let myself cry. All I could think of was my family. What I was about to put my sweet husband through—and my kids, what would happen to them?

My fight began…

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Finding my drive to fight ovarian cancer

I went for weekly chemotherapy, the worst part being the ice buckets I kept my hands and feet submerged in during the one-hour infusions. One of the side effects of the drugs I received is irreversible neuropathy. Keeping my hands and feet cold during the infusion was necessary to try to prevent or at least decrease the severity of neuropathy.

The plan was to shrink the tumors so they would be easier to remove during the surgery. After nine weeks of chemotherapy, my CA125 dropped to 84 and it was time for surgery.

My daughter was about to graduate with her doctorate in analytical chemistry. I told Dr. Koon I would have surgery whenever he recommended, but I was going to the graduation even if I had to go on a stretcher. He worked with me to choose a date that allowed me to recover for two weeks before making the 6-hour drive.

The surgery took 7 hours. Dr. Koon removed tumors on my right ovary, left ovary, bladder, omentum and colon. I lost 4 inches of my rectum but thankfully did not need a colostomy.

Two weeks after surgery, I saw my daughter graduate. It was one of the happiest days of my life. She’d worked so hard, and I had feared I might not live to see it. It was a hard, painful trip, but so worth it!

Learning to run again after chemotherapy

I returned home for another 15 weeks of chemotherapy. As I once again sat with my hands and feet in ice, I decided not only was I going to survive, but I was going to do something with my survival—I would get out of this chemo chair and run 50 miles just to spite this disease.

I was an ultra-marathon runner before cancer and I would be again. I would run, not only as my personal victory dance, but also to bring awareness to this horrible disease.

At first, I struggled to walk to the end of my driveway, then to the end of the block, but soon I was running. Slowly at first, but with determination.

I had to learn to run in a new body too. The cancer, chemo and surgery caused lasting changes that I had to learn to overcome. But with faith, prayer and the blessings of God, my family and my medical team, I went from barely being able to walk to running 50 miles for ovarian cancer awareness.

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The day of the race I wore 50 stickers, some representing blessings and others representing challenges I faced and overcame during my cancer journey. Every mile was dedicated to my victory over ovarian cancer and my mission to spread awareness to other women.

The symptoms of ovarian cancer are subtle: bloating, early satiety, abdominal pain, changes in bowel or bladder habits, and heightened fatigue. Things that we as women often write off as “normal.”

This is my message to every woman reading this story—know the symptoms, pay attention and listen to your instincts when something feels off. And know that you are stronger than you think.

This story was contributed by Lori Llera, ovarian cancer survivor.

Concerned about symptoms or want to learn more about your ovarian health? Connect with an OBGYN today.

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