Life as a Survivor: My Battle with Ovarian Cancer

September 20, 2023 | by Sierra Estep

Life as a Survivor: My Battle with Ovarian Cancer

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and Ovarian Cancer Month, so I want to share my story as a Pediatric Ovarian Cancer Survivor.

I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Ovarian Cancer on June 26th, 2013. I was ten years old. I had to go through six rounds of chemotherapy that year. Instead of going to school and having fun as any fifth grader would, I would go to the hospital for treatment. Nothing prepares you for the difficulties ahead, how your entire life changes because of a single moment. But you adapt to the change and push forward, holding yourself together with the help of friends, family, doctors, nurses, and your own inner strength. You persevere through everything for as long as you can; from the long doctor’s office visits where you hope to get good news, to the painful late nights of chemotherapy treatment, you fight through it all until hopefully your battle comes to an end.

As I went through treatment I lost my appetite and was fighting off waves of nausea non-stop whenever I was in the hospital. I lost serious weight—I was at most 85 pounds at any given moment—and I had never felt weaker. And yet I forced myself to remain hopeful that eventually, all of this pain would lead me to remission. 

On December 11th, it will be 10 years since I was declared cancer-free after months of treatment.

It’s been a decade of survivorship, and I can still remember my battle with cancer as if it happened yesterday. To be fully honest, there are some days where I would rather forget about all  the pain and suffering I went through during that year, but most of the time I view my journey as a reminder of my strength and as a catalyst for my gratitude. In spite of all the challenges, I am thankful for how my cancer diagnosis shaped me into the person I am today.

I appreciate the time I have, and I cherish each new day. Going through something as life-changing as cancer causes your perspective to shift, and it makes you forever grateful for every opportunity that you get. Since you never know what tomorrow will bring, you have to find gratitude for the small joys found in everyday life.

In spite of all the pain, cancer showed me not only my inner strength but also the constant support of friends and family. Some people view you differently because of what you’ve experienced; others will celebrate your ability to be strong in spite of all the challenges a diagnosis brings. The people who continue to support you and care for you as a cancer patient are special. 

Cancer survivorship also brought so many new people into my life through the shared impact of cancer on our lives. I’m a CFC intern and scholar, and I’ve met many incredible survivors through this organization. It’s amazing to meet others who have had similar experiences to you. It makes you feel less alone. Cancer for College continues to bring incredible new opportunities into my everyday life, and I am so grateful for the people I meet and the stories of others that are shared with me through my job. I also continue to meet other survivors in college through various clubs and other school activities. I’m forever in awe of how many of us are connected through how cancer has changed us all.

While I wish I could sit here and say survivorship has only been full of positives, it comes with an equal amount of uncertainties. Even though I made it through treatment, the fight does not end there. 

As a survivor, you are susceptible to side effects that can impact your long-term health. I had high doses of specific types of chemotherapy that risk lung damage and hearing loss, so I have to do annual check-ups to make sure that my body is still okay. I always worry whenever I go to my routine doctor’s appointments, “what if something’s wrong again?” What if, after everything that I’ve been through, I have to go through the stress and uncertainty of yet another diagnosis? Doubts and worries fill my mind. 

Not only did chemotherapy put me at risk for future health issues, but the removal of my right ovary as the result of my tumor brings up questions about what the future holds for my family. Will I still be able to have kids someday? I don’t have an answer to that question, and it echoes in the back of my mind whenever I think about what is in store for my future.

There is still a lot of work left to be done in researching pediatric cancer. Many treatments aren’t fully developed for pediatric use- the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation reported that only 4% of funds for cancer research go towards pediatric cancer, even though thousands of children are diagnosed with cancer each year. We have the unique disadvantage of needing to live with the terrible effects of the current treatments for decades into the future. I wish that more resources would go towards researching pediatric cancer, to create treatments that would reduce the risk of residual medical issues once a child reaches remission.

Survivorship is full of new, beautiful experiences, as well as uncertainty and stress. You have to grapple with your past while finding hope for the future. Some days it’s easy, and other days it’s hard. But my cancer journey will forever serve as a reminder of my strength, and makes me thankful for each new day.

Sierra Estep is an Ovarian Cancer Survivor, 2x Cancer for College Scholar, and a CFC Intern since February of 2023. She studies film and media studies at the University of California Irvine, and hopes to work for Disney someday. 

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Photo credits: Sierra Estep