IU Health Simon Cancer Center

Animal Lover Fights Ovarian Cancer

Patient Stories

September 20, 2018

When pelvic pain forced Michelle Cannava to the emergency room, doctors discovered a tumor the size of a baby’s head. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

It’s hard to believe that her deep brown eyes and her smile were once distracted by something else – something physically out of place. But Michelle Cannava shows pictures and explains that there was something wrong – something that she ignored.

She was 49, the mother of three adult children and yet, her stomach was extended well beyond the surface of her slender frame.

It was 3 a.m. in early April when she headed to the emergency room of a hospital near her Brazil, Ind. home.

“I knew going in whatever was happening to my body was bad. It was time to face it but I still hoped it was something less scary than cancer. Cancer was the thought I couldn't shake,” said Cannava.

Her fears were confirmed. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the fifth in cancer deaths among women. The American Cancer Society estimates a woman’s risk of getting ovarian cancer in her lifetime is about 1 in 78. Her chance of dying from ovarian cancer is about 1 in 108. About 22,240 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

September is National Ovarian Cancer Month – a time to remind women of signs, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment. The most common symptoms are bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, trouble eating or feeling full quickly, and urinary symptoms such as urgency and frequency.

The American Cancer Society warns that these symptoms may be linked to other conditions but if a women experiences them more than 12 times a month, she should contact her physician.

“I know they call ovarian cancer the ‘silent killer’ because sometimes the symptoms are subtle, and it’s more difficult to detect, but in hindsight I knew there was something wrong for a long time and I had been ignoring the symptoms,” said Cannava, a patient of hematologist/oncologist Dr. S. Hamid H. Sayar.

***

With three adult children, Cannava and her husband Mike Pendley had just made some changes in their life. She left a demanding career in search of what she calls a simpler life. They sold their large home in an Indianapolis suburb and moved to a 30-acre farm in historical Brazil, Ind.

“We were doing what so many people yearn to do - leaving the rat race to live out the next stage of our lives somewhere tranquil where we could submerge ourselves in what we loved to do rather than what we had to do to make a living,” said Cannava. They downsized to a 1,200-square-foot log cabin and built doggie condos for their five Labrador retrievers. They planted a garden and spent their free time shopping at local flea markets and taking in small town festivities such as horse pulls, tractor demolition derbies and chicken and noodle dinners. Cannava joined the Rotary Club and began volunteering at the local Humane Society. In short, she was enjoying life to the fullest. But she was also working hard to reject the idea that she might be sick.

“I would glance at the pot belly that I had started to struggle with and call it a ‘middle-aged pooch.’ At the same time my brain was saying ‘you know Michelle, sometimes woman suddenly get a belly and discover they have a large tumor.’ Then I would dismiss it because it scared me,” said Cannava.

In November 2017, her volunteer role with the Humane Society changed to a staff position. She was busy managing the shelter, loving on animals, making media appearances and promoting a cause that she was passionate about. But five months into her new position, her symptoms increased – including back pain and reoccurring headaches. She ended up in the emergency room.

“That night they discovered a tumor the size of a baby's head in my pelvic region. The tumor had pushed my colon to the opposite side of my body, was putting pressure on my bladder and displacing other internal organs,” said Cannava. Surgery followed to remove the mass, along with a full hysterectomy. Two days later, doctors at her local hospital told her she had Stage II Ovarian cancer. She began chemotherapy.

“After my first infusion I began to doubt my choice to be treated at that cancer center. I left every appointment confused and didn't feel like I was being heard so I started the process of researching other cancer centers in the Indianapolis area and found IU Health Simon Cancer Center,” said Cannava. She began her second infusion within a week and was scheduled for surgery to repair a surgical hernia.

***

“The difference has been incredible. I literally cried my first appointment and felt like I was ready to fight this and had a true team behind me,” said Cannava, who is more than halfway through her treatments.

“My advice to woman is to not ignore symptoms. I believe there are others out there like me who know something scary is happening to their bodies but are too afraid to face it. Woman have an intuition that more often than not is accurate. I was lucky that the pain became bad enough that I was forced to face it before the cancer progressed to a later stage,” said Cannava. “It would be easy to say that after all the steps we took to simplify our lives that this is unfair but I prefer to believe that God set it up to happen exactly that way. I believe that we needed to be in a more serene setting and I needed to be doing something I loved in order to fight this. The animals I work with seem to sense my illness and have a way of gazing into my eyes and letting me know it's ok. Together we are saving each other.”

-- By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at
T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.

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