“Cancer is a beast. When it rears its ugly face, it can rock our world. It never has good timing. It can alter both our outer and inner appearance and abilities. It tampers with our mindset. It can change relationships, and for many of my ovarian peers, it strips them of reproductive hopes and dreams.” — Dr. Meredith Mitstifer, Brighter, 2023

Meredith Mitstifer
Dr. Meredith Mitstifer
(Photo Provided)

This is where my story takes a hard left turn. After years of infertility, I was informed an unknown mass would further delay any fertility procedures. I already endured years of suspected endometriosis, laparoscopic surgeries, and overall gynecological issues since I was 19 years old, and I felt this was just history repeating itself. However, the mass tripled in size within a month, and immediate surgery was recommended. During preoperative tests for surgery, one must take a pregnancy test. I was told I was naturally pregnant. Shocked, startled, and a bit rattled with confusion and glee, I was told I could either terminate the pregnancy, so surgery could occur, or wait until I was 4 months gestation. I chose the latter, given that I knew this might be my only chance to have a child.

Meredith Mitstifer and son
Dr. Meredith Mitstifer and her son
(Photo Provided)

At 4 months gestation, surgery occurred. Unfortunately, the mass ruptured upon removal. I was diagnosed with clear cell epithelial ovarian cancer while 4 months pregnant at the age of 30. Yes, first and second opinions presented minimal options and a plethora of medical concerns. Research on the effects of chemotherapy while pregnant was sparse 20 years ago. Many “shot in the dark” opinions did not provide much comfort. I chose to wait. The baby survived the first surgery. After his delivery, I had more surgery and began chemotherapy when he was 6 weeks old. This was probably the first instance when I realized I had much more to conquer than just cancer. I had to conquer myself.

Fast forward to the present time. My “baby” and I recently celebrated 20 years of life. It feels like yesterday that I vowed to my son and to myself that, should I live, I would forever advocate. Specifically, I would volunteer for the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC), which was there for me at a very dark time. My husband and I separated during treatment and officially divorced a few years after. I was sad, depressed, and overwhelmed with life, recovery, and a newborn. My friends dragged me to a community event/run walk sponsored by NOCC. This is where my life took a positive pivot. I heard other women share their stories, which empowered me to share mine. I then began to volunteer for NOCC in Tucson, Arizona, which later turned into serving as a volunteer manager and then a member at large for the board of directors. I am now serving my 6th year as Chairman of the Board. I am so incredibly proud to be part of the NOCC, as I value their mission, programs, and resources, as well as their leadership team, staff, and incredible volunteers. I now have the opportunity to bear witness to the impact the NOCC directly has on survivors, Families, and communities. My advocacy doesn’t stop here. I also take part in the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance’s Survivors Teaching Students Program and have participated in their advocacy days on Capitol Hill for more research dollars. I am also a writer for a magazine called, Brighter, which serves women with any cancer, and I support smaller ovarian cancer organizations that do amazing things in their communities. We are all in this together.

Meredith Mitstifer and son
Dr. Meredith Mitstifer and her son
(Photo Provided)

Over the last 2 years, I have been especially proud to participate in the Ovarian Cancer Research Program (OCRP), which was recommended to me by a fellow survivor and dear friend. My first experience was nothing short of amazing. My eyes were opened to the proposed research ideas, interest, dedication, and work of others, which was inspiring. As a survivor, serving as a peer reviewer was both a huge learning experience and incredibly motivating. I was initially nervous, but later I was so grateful to be part of this phenomenal program. The OCRP provides excellent mentorship and support throughout the entire process. I had the opportunity to learn and meet so many extraordinary researchers and scientists and to witness their interest in a survivor’s viewpoint. I am simply in awe of their dedication and expertise.

Therefore, I believe I have stood by my advocacy promise made a long time ago; but what makes me most proud is that my son does as well. Together, we have presented our story nationwide, and watching his passion and willingness to advocate through a mother’s lens is indescribable. Yes, I’m a proud mother. I want future ovarian cancer survivors to have this same opportunity. I can’t imagine their grief when this option is surgically removed.

As a mother (and maybe as the clinical psychologist in me), I have encouraged my son to apply the concepts of gratitude, living life with purpose, and most importantly, to always seek discomfort, as it allows us to not only experience new things, but grow through them as well. Just when you think your children aren’t listening, they prove you wrong.

A month before his 20th birthday and my 20th “cancerversary,” my son informed me that we needed to celebrate this milestone in a big way. I was excited about his enthusiasm and drive and assumed that we were going to try and jog a 5K run.

Meredith Mitstifer and son
Dr. Meredith Mitstifer and her son
(Photo Provided)

Here is where our story took another hard left turn. He informed me that we were going to join the NOCC’s Team Teal, which is their endurance platform. I asked whether we were running, kayaking, or riding a bike somewhere? His reply: “We are going to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, the largest free-standing mountain in the world in July 2023.” I gulped.

I politely informed him that his 50-year-old mother is neither athletic nor a mountain climber. His response: “Well, you won’t be able to say that too much longer.” He reminded me to be grateful for my health; how this event clearly demonstrated living with purpose and raised awareness for our very personal cause; but most of all, that we needed to “seek discomfort.” This was the moment I questioned my parenting style.

Training commenced, and weekends were dedicated to hiking, walking, and practicing breathing in different altitudes. It’s no secret that research indicates that exercise improves both our physical wellness and our mental mindset. I would complain and share how my body hurt every day; that my neuropathy was the worst it’s ever been; and that learning how to use a pee funnel was nothing but enlightening—but all this time with my college sophomore son will never be forgotten. Gratitude, purpose, and discomfort achieved.

We left for Tanzania, Africa, on June 30th.
We began our 7-day adventure and climb to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro on July 4th, 2023.
Was I fearful? Yes.
Was I excited? Yes.
Did we make it to the rooftop of Africa 6 days later? YES.

Ovarian Cancer Awareness was taken to new heights. My particular bonus—the opportunity to do this side-by-side with my miracle baby and fellow advocate.

I hope others realize that we are so much more than cancer. Cancer does not define us. Most importantly, it’s not the cancer or the mountain we can conquer—it’s ourselves.

NOTE: Portions of this highlight were previously published: Mitstifer M. 2023. “Ovarian cancer awareness reaches new heights.” Brighter [Spring 2023]. []. Included with permission from © 2023 Meredith Mitstifer.

The views, opinions, and/or findings contained in this paper are those of the author(s) and should not be construed as an official Department of Defense position, policy, or decision.

Last updated Thursday, September 14, 2023