By Liana Jacob
MEET the inspiring TWO-TIME cancer survivor who used to hide her scars in shame until she beat ovarian cancer and is now on a mission to prove to people that it is possible to beat cancer and love your body as it is.
Professional health and wellness coach, Emilee Garfield (42), from California, USA, was born with embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare microscopic form of cancer of the connective tissue but wasn’t diagnosed until she was just four-years-old in 1980.
Emilee spent the following years in the hospital undergoing radiation of her pelvis and chemotherapy treatments for two years before she was declared cancer-free in 1982.
Despite not being able to conceive due to her childhood cancer and having to have a partial hysterectomy, as she was at the risk of having cervical cancer at the time, when she was just 21-years-old, Emilee was blessed with three children, Hayden (15) and twins Macie and Griffin (12), via a surrogate, after harvesting eggs from the one ovary that was not removed during surgery.
Throughout her adulthood, she felt insecure about her scars and body after enduring cancer at such a young age and this made her feel unlovable to others.
She explains her emotions at the time and how difficult it was to embrace her body.
“I had my first cancer at age four. I was a shy kid due to cancer and became very insecure. I grew up having a lot of shame around cancer, my body and all of my scars,” Emilee said.
“I felt un-lovable to others, especially men. I want to send a message to other young girls that cancer doesn’t define you: You are beautiful just the way you are. You are enough.
“I hope to inspire young survivors, so they will discover the gift of their struggles. It may not seem like it at the time, but there is a greater purpose for all of this.
“The most important thing I can share is that life is a gift. Please don’t take it for granted. I wasted so much of my life worrying about what others thought of me.
“I tried so hard to impress others and be somebody I wasn’t. That only led me to feeling depressed and lonely.
“Cancer can really mess with your mind and your emotions. I never was open about cancer until I was diagnosed for the second time at thirty-nine-years-old, in 2015.”
Emilee began experiencing unexplained symptoms between 2010 and 2015 that were brushed off by doctors such as blood in her stool, abdominal pain, bloating, frequency in urination, painful sex, bleeding during intercourse and abnormal vaginal bleeding.
It wasn’t until she had a CAT scan and a transvaginal ultrasound in January 2015, that she was diagnosed with stage 3C ovarian cancer, which shocked her doctors.
In February 2015, she began 19 chemotherapy treatments, debulking surgery, which is the reduction of as much of the bulk (volume) of a tumour as possible, achieved by a surgical procedure. She had three tumours; one on her outer sigmoid colon, one on her bladder and one on her rectum and vagina. She was cleared of ovarian cancer after her final chemotherapy round in October 2015.
She has since made it her mission to be an advocate to other women out there who may be going through similar ordeals, to prove that it is possible to beat it.
“The worst part is that I had all of the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer and I did reach out to doctors, but they didn’t take my abdominal pain, bloating and constipation seriously,” she said.
“Looking back now I can’t blame anyone. This is a hard cancer to detect, but more doctors, especially general practitioners, need to be educated on all of these signs and symptoms.
“Someone with all of these signs, such as bloating, constipation, fatigue, pelvic pain, changes in appetite, feeling full for more than two weeks, should see a doctor. Don’t panic if you have one of these symptoms. I had them all plus low back pain and ongoing urinary tract infections.
“My doctor simply told me to drink more stool softener and the subject was dropped. In the meantime, my signs and symptoms were getting worse. This is when I knew something was wrong.
Three years went by. In the meantime, I had blood in my stool, experienced painful sex, had abnormal bleeding from my vagina, including bleeding during intercourse.
“This was abnormal for me because I never had a period in my life due to radiation damage to my pelvis from having cancer at age four.
“I had three small children and would focus on them and ignore myself and my pain. Life was busy and chaotic, so worrying about myself was the last thing on my mind.
“When I would mention to anyone that I felt sick, and there was nothing physically wrong with me showing on the outside, people thought I was making stuff up and that I was a hypochondriac.
“Sometimes I felt like I was always complaining, but I truly felt sick. That was the hardest part of it all. Ovarian cancer is known as the ‘silent killer’.
“The signs and symptoms are all there––they whisper. It’s a hard cancer to detect until it has spread and metastasised, which is what happened to me.
“My pain eventually got so bad that it put me on my back and still I had no answers. I continued to live in pain and thought I must be going crazy.
“I had a full pelvic exam and pap smear – which doesn’t detect ovarian cancer. I had a colonoscopy, but it was negative because my tumours were on the outside of my colon, posterior vagina and on my bladder.
“I had a CAT scan and it said I had an ovarian cyst, but my intuition said, ‘It is worse’. I had to push for a CAT scan and a transvaginal ultrasound which eventually was the way they diagnosed my cancer.
“Even the doctors were shocked. They could not imagine I had cancer.”
Ovarian cancer is the fifth deadliest cancer in women and mainly affects those who have been through menopause; usually over the age of 50. It is rare in women 40 and under.
Typical symptoms of the cancer often include; feeling constantly bloated, a swollen tummy, pelvic pain, urinary tract infections, and fatigue.
Following the good news that she beat cancer, Emilee began sharing her journey on her Instagram, @cancersavedmylife, and has learnt how to love her body.
“In the past I was angry at cancer and always asked, ‘Why me?’ Today that has changed, which is a complete transformation in my life,” she said.
“To me, that is the biggest accomplishment of my entire life. Surviving cancer wasn’t even as hard as all of the emotional pain I have been through.
“I am healing now and on a better path. I hope to inspire other young survivors like me. I hope to be a role model to those who also feel hopeless and feelings of low self-esteem.
“In the end, it comes down to loving yourself for exactly who you are and where you are, without judgement. For me, that has been the hardest, loving myself.
“I made my recovery journey easier by keeping a positive attitude. It took about six weeks for me to come to terms with the fact that I might die.
“I decided that if I was going to die, I was going to create happy memories for me and my kids. I didn’t want them to feel sad and scared.
“I credit myself for my journey back to peace, hope and joy. Why? Because I did all the hard work. Nobody told me how this journey was going to go.
“I would tell someone in my shoes to never give up hope. I would recommend not reading the internet because the internet told me I had a low survival rate– 27 percent I read.
“I say, visualise what you want your life to look like after cancer. Give yourself something to look forward to, like a vacation. I decided I would treat myself to Hawaii after my last surgery and I did.”
For more information visit: www.emileegarfield.com
Her blog: www.cancercorerecovery.org