Debbie Johnston knew something was wrong. She didn’t feel like herself – she was bloated, had shortness of breath. She thought maybe something might be wrong with her colon, so in May 2010 when she was 55, she visited her family doctor. After a checkup her doctor said everything looked fine, but something told Johnston to protest, and her doctor ordered an ultrasound. It revealed she was full of fluid. However, the doctor still did not feel anything was wrong. Johnston’s daughter had been researching her mother’s symptoms and convinced her mother to get a second opinion. That saved Johnston’s life.
Within a week of speaking with her new doctor, Johnston, a kindergarten teacher at Croninger Elementary, was not only diagnosed with full-blown ovarian cancer, she was in surgery. The operation revealed the right ovary had ruptured. The cancer from it had spread wildly. A tumor the size of a Kleenex box was found inside of her. After Dr. Boyd removed all of the cancer that he could, she began chemo.
Johnston’s family stood by her through her ordeal. Her husband of 41 years, Greg, has been her anchor. They have four children and seven grandchildren.
Four to five weeks and six cycles of chemotherapy later, Johnston returned to teaching. After the treatment she had another CT scan in January 2011, which showed she had no signs of cancer. Life was looking up.
There is a simple mnemonic device for recognizing the signs of ovarian cancer: BEAT: bloating that is persistent, eating less and feeling fuller, abdominal pain, and trouble with your bladder. According to ovariancancer. org, these and other symptoms: fatigue, back pain, indigestion, constipation, pain with intercourse and an irregular menstruation can also be signs of ovarian cancer. If you exhibit any of these signs, especially more than 12 times over a month or if the symptoms are not typical for you, go see a gynecologist.
Early detection of ovarian cancer saves women’s lives. The Pap test does not test for ovarian cancer; it screens for cervical cancer. If ovarian cancer is suspected or if a woman is possibly at high risk for ovarian cancer because of family history, a doctor will likely order a CA-125 blood test, a transvaginal ultrasound and/or a pelvic exam. A CT scan or a PET scan might also be used to diagnose ovarian cancer. However, the only way to be sure if a woman has ovarian cancer is surgery and biopsy, says ovariancancer.org.
Johnston, cautiously optimistic about having been cancer free for three years, continued to get checkups every three months as recommended. In February 2014 she wasn’t feeling well, so she visited the doctor a bit early. That resulted in her husband holding her hand on Valentine’s Day while she had yet another round of chemo – although a small amount, the cancer was back.
Before the news of her second battle with cancer she and her husband had scheduled a European cruise. At press time, Johnston had completed this second round of chemo and had just had a promising CT scan to be followed by an official consultation with her doctor. She was fully expecting good news to take with her on the celebration cruise that will end in Venice where her husband will take her on the gondola ride he’s always wanted to.
“It’s been a rough road (but I’m) still fighting. You have to look at the positives each day. With cancer you really appreciate life so much more,” says Johnston. For more information on Johnston’s progress, check out The Debbie A. Johnston Foundation Facebook page.