This is the Face of Cancer

Written by Julie Burton

Two women with two different stories, both of which are making noise on the “whispering disease” known as ovarian cancer.

As a hairstylist, Mandy Garavaglia’s job is to start a conversation — and make you look good. Her craft is working with hair, but she also has the ears of women. Garavaglia is starting a conversation. And her voice is much louder than a whisper.

Garavaglia was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in January. She is 35 years old

The American Cancer Society (ACS) says 22,000 American women will receive a diagnosis of ovarian cancer in 2018. About 14,000 of those women will die from the disease. Ovarian cancer accounts for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. 

Do statistics change people’s behavior? Perhaps. The real action starts with voices. 

In 2015, Garavaglia and her husband, John, were ready to start the process for a second baby via IVF. Doctors performed a routine ultrasound, which led to the discovery of polyps in Garavaglia’s uterus. After testing, she was told she had early stage endometrial cancer. 

 Thirty five-year-old Mandy Garavaglia (here, with her daughter), is a two-time cancer (endometrial and ovarian) survivor.  Photo by Cassandra Castaneda.

Thirty five-year-old Mandy Garavaglia (here, with her daughter), is a two-time cancer (endometrial and ovarian) survivor. Photo by Cassandra Castaneda.

Jessica Langel (not pictured) was just 20 years old when she began struggling with chronic urinary tract infections, kidney stones, and abdominal bloating with pain. She visited a urologist, who discovered an ovarian germ cell tumor. One cyst quickly grew to three. Langel’s urologist assured her such growths are common and harmless in women her age. Cancerous germ cell tumors are rare, making up only 2% of all ovarian cancers according to ACS.

Five months later, after another ultrasound, the cysts had grown large enough that Langel had surgery to remove them. Afterward, Langel got the phone call from her surgeon’s personal cell phone. She had ovarian cancer.

Garavaglia’s oncologists recommended removing her uterus after a failed attempt to get pregnant again. Garavaglia scheduled her surgery for Jan. 17, 2018. Three days prior to the surgery, during another routine ultrasound, doctors found a 10-centimeter mass on Garavaglia’s ovary that was not there six months prior. 

The scheduled surgery took a different course. Garavaglia was told surgeons would make an incision on approximately her zipper line. Her ovary with the cyst would be removed and sent to pathology while Garavaglia slept. If the pathology report revealed cancer, surgeons would cut up to her breastbone and remove all of Garavaglia’s female organs including the surrounding lymph nodes. 

“I went to sleep not knowing,” Garavaglia says. “People say you won’t remember waking up from surgery because you’re so groggy but I remember every second. I remember opening my drapes, looking at the incision, and knowing I had ovarian cancer.”

Langel chose a holistic cancer treatment center in Arizona. She was deemed cancer-free. But the cysts grew back in both ovaries. Langel opted for surgery, removing all of her female organs. 

Garavaglia says her early stage endometrial cancer was a blessing. Only 9% of women find ovarian cancer at stage 1. Ovarian cancer is called the disease that whispers because the symptoms are subtle — decreased energy, bloating, lower back pain, urinary symptoms, or bowel changes. The only way to screen for ovarian cancer is through regular gynecological check-ups, ultrasounds, and a blood marker called CA-125. Even then, cervical cancer is difficult to detect in its early stages. It cannot be tested by a pap smear.

Garavaglia doesn’t have a family history of gynecologic cancers. She tested negative for genetic mutations and she didn’t have any other risk factors. Garavaglia showed the subtle symptoms of ovarian cancer but many of the symptoms were easily excused. Garavaglia remembers feeling an increase in urination. It was enough of an inconvenience that she went to her doctor to be tested for a UTI, which turned out negative. 

“This is not an old-lady disease,” Garavaglia stresses. “Women should listen to their bodies and talk to their doctors. Don’t be embarrassed to talk about periods and the female body. If you feel changes in your body for more than two weeks, talk to your doctor. Don’t let them blow you off just because of your age.”

Garavaglia went through chemotherapy to rid her body of any remaining cancer cells after her surgery. She knows she is a rare case in that it was caught early. “I hope this is why I was given this challenge,” Garavaglia says. “This the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. With my job, I talk to so many women. I hope this is God’s purpose for me.”

Garavaglia and Langel do not speak in whispers. Their message: This is the face of cancer.

Suzanne Steiner