My story began in June of 1998 when I was a typical 18 year old living life, spending time with my friends, going to college, working and having fun being a teen. I noticed I began to experience abdominal pain, bloating, loss of appetite and weight loss. As time passed instead of me getting better my symptoms got worse. I scheduled a doctors appointment and I was somewhat relieved when my doctor told me it was a stomach virus. Months later after my symptoms persisted, I returned to the physicians and was diagnosed with gastritis. After continued pain, a sonogram was ordered by an OB/GYN and I was then diagnosed with an ovarian cyst. I was scheduled for outpatient surgery June 4th 1998. I was expected to go home in 3 hours following the procedure. I awoke from anesthesia the next day in tremendous pain and still in the hospital. I went under anesthesia expecting to undergo a relatively minor surgical procedure but instead underwent major surgery to remove what turned out to be a tumor larger than a tennis ball. It was shocking news to learn that I had a tumor removed instead of a cyst, like I was previously told and that my doctors expected. This tumor had overtaken my whole left ovary and another tumor was removed from my right ovary. After pathology I was diagnosed with Stage III C Ovarian Cancer. I went to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston who then confirmed my diagnosis.
I never knew how much my life would change and how strong I would have to be. I had to mentally and physically prepare myself for what was to come. Just 1 month after my diagnosis I underwent another surgery on my chest for port-a-cath placement for what would be used for chemotherapy infusions. I then endured two more major surgeries for tumor de-bulking in 1999. I underwent 12 months of Carbo/Taxol Chemotherapy. At age 19 I had to make a life altering decision whether to keep my right ovary or have it removed as another nodule showed up on a CT Scan. Among the many ramifications of my decisions, my decision to have my ovaries removed would also keep me from ever bearing a child. After much consideration, I decided to undergo a total hysterectomy. I continued my monthly check ups and monthly lab draws of CA125 (blood test). Initially my CA125 was 88 at diagnosis (below 35 is normal), after the 12 months of chemo my CA125 began to rise slowly. After many tests, my doctor in Houston and I decided to try a different approach, I was then placed on Tamoxifen. Tamoxifen decreased my CA125 and my CT scans showed stability for 5 years.
Then in 2004 my CA125 began to rise and my doctor switched my medication to Arimidex, which kept me stable for 7 years. During those seven years I continued my doctor check ups and monthly lab draws.
Throughout the years, I was very fearful but decided I had to continue to live my life to the fullest. As a patient, nurses who sympathized and truly cared about me encouraged and gave me hope that one day I could do the same for others. This played a major role in my decision to become a nurse. In 2007 I accomplished my goal and became a Registered Nurse. My work as a nurse brought me much joy, as I was able to help patients. I always felt a certain connection to them because I felt I understood much of what they were enduring. At this point life was great, I got married in 2008 and was excited to enjoy life. But, I didn’t know how it was about to change once again.
In January of 2011, the ovarian cancer symptoms came back. I was very disappointed after having been relatively healthy for so many years however, I knew that I had to be positive in order to keep up my fight. After visiting my doctor in Houston and a CT Scan I was told I had a recurrence of ovarian cancer. I was told I needed surgery once again. I underwent another tumor debulking surgery on July 5, 2011. This surgery was major as I had three surgeons working on me, my gynecologist oncologist, a cardiologist and a gastrointestinal physician. After surgery I was placed in ICU (intensive care unit) for three days and admitted in the hospital for twelve days. Needless to say, I had a very difficult recovery that lasted over a year and a half.
During my entire ordeal going back to 1998 to the present, I often witnessed patients who were lonely or who had little or no moral support. I also came across patients who had a minimal education or did not speak English and weren’t able to understand all the medical terminology. There are many patients who feel intimidated and therefore are afraid to ask questions. I feel those patients need someone and somewhere they can turn to and ask questions. Questions that I myself had 14 years ago, and my family and I had to spend a lot of precious time and emotional energy looking for answers.
As I went through my 2011 hospitalization, I noticed that not a lot has changed in regards to the people’s needs. Also, not many advances have been made in the field of ovarian cancer since I previously underwent extensive treatment. Unfortunately, there is still no specific diagnostic test that can actually detect ovarian cancer. This is especially troubling since early detection is extremely important. It is because of this that my husband and I decided to form a foundation.
Diana’s I Will Live was created, for those who are fighting to live, for those whose legacy continues to live on and for those who live to make a difference and join our cause. With this foundation we will help spread awareness and assist and guide patients and their families before and during their battle with this terrible disease.
Together we will help others fight their many battles and bring a little hope one day at a time. I declare, I believe, I will live.
*Diana lost her brave battle to ovarian cancer on Tuesday, January 6, 2015. She was laid to rest in Buda, Texas where she is survived by her husband, Martin Zavala, her family, and prolific friends she impacted through this foundation.