October 3, 2008

Tattoo is Image of Hope

By Jessica Marcy [email protected] 981-3340

Kristy Miller has a tattoo on the left side of her lower abdomen with a light green ribbon and a red four-leaf clover.

It symbolizes the story of her courage, resiliency and sheer luck.

The Roanoke County mother got the tattoo almost four years ago after she survived ovarian cancer. She discovered she had cancer at the age of 24 while five months pregnant with her second child.

To help raise awareness about the disease, Miller is helping organize Saturday's Picnic in the Park, an event hosted by the Central Southwest Virginia Chapter of the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition.

Her story begins when she went to the doctor after a night of pain. When the ultrasound technician moved her wand, a tumor the size of a large softball appeared on Miller's left side.

"Me and the ultrasound tech just about had a heart attack," Miller said. But her doctor assured her it was nothing severe and sent her home.

Two days later, she said, she had pain that was so intense she tried to climb out the car window as her husband drove her to the emergency room.

In a mere two days, the tumor had grown from 10 to 15 centimeters, Miller said. The tumor and her left ovary were removed during a surgery. She said she felt like she had been gutted like a fish.

Even after the surgery, though, she didn't think the tumor was cancerous because the hospital staff seemed so relaxed.

"Nobody was nervous, so I wasn't nervous," Miller said. "I really did have a good sense of humor about it because I was so naive."

Ovarian cancer is sometimes undetected because many of its symptoms are similar to those of premenstrual syndrome. There is no definitive screening or test to detect it besides surgery and biopsy. Many women only discover it through ultrasound or transvaginal ultrasound, which a woman normally only gets when she is pregnant.

Each year, about 20,000 American women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and about 15,000 women die of the disease, according to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance.

After being told she had ovarian cancer, Miller asked the oncologist point-blank whether she would die, she said. He told her that when she looked back on her experience the surgery would be the worst point.

He sent her to the University of Virginia Medical Center to get her chemotherapy treatment plan. There, she learned about the chemo's possible side effects including hair loss, mouth sores, kidney failure and neuropathy, or all-over pain.

On Sept. 27, 2004, Miller started treatment, which included four rounds of chemo. Each was eight hours a day, five days a week for two weeks at a time.

Miller finished her third round of chemotherapy a week before she went into labor at 37 weeks. At that point, her body was breaking down, she said, and doctors were careful about her blood levels, which they had to make sure were healthy enough for her to go into labor.

She gave birth to her son Ramsey Miller on Nov. 17, 2004. She said it was a glorious experience.

"I just about laughed him out," she said.

The best part: He was born with a full, thick head of hair, defying doctors' predictions that the chemotherapy may cause baldness, she said.

Still, Miller could only marvel in the experience for so long. She had only a week to rest before she had to undergo her fourth round of chemo.

The final round was completely exhausting, and there were many times she thought she wouldn't make it.

"It was painful to move, to breathe, to exist," she said. "It was just very emotional."

Miller said nothing can prepare a person for the lessons cancer teaches.

It's taught her about empathy and people, about the people she thought would be there for her that weren't and others who surprised her by how much they cared.

It's deepened her bond with her husband, she said. It's taught them that as parents, they both want to teach their two sons -- Bryce, 5, and Ramsey, 3 -- to love others and be better people each day.

Miller's tattoo, with its ovarian cancer ribbon and clover, reminds her of such lessons and makes her think of her younger son.

"He was my four-leaf clover that got me through it," she said.

Picnic in the Park

The Central Southwest Virginia Chapter of the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition is organizing a picnic to raise awareness about ovarian cancer. Free hot dogs and music by Big Lik Band.

When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday

Where: Smith Park, Wiley Drive, Roanoke

Contact: 586-3549

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