By Vivian Teich
**NOTE: Vivi passed away on February 14. 2015, and will be forever missed.
Eleanor Roosevelt said it best. "A woman is like a tea bag. You don't know how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” Or until she puts herself there, and gets out somehow. It took a single fateful day for me to realize this, a second in time on a journey few of us take — but really, many of us actually do.
I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in May of 2010. It was already pretty advanced. (Someone was asleep at the wheel. Was it me??) After the chilling news, and much back-and-forth with little time to waste, I chose to be treated at Sloan Kettering, a premier cancer center in New York City. Known to most, it felt safe, clean, protected. I would be in good hands. It would be well organized and institutional, a great hospital with an exceptional surgeon — and, I thought at the time, a great oncology team. My daughter, Aly, had heard of Bruckner Oncology early on, but I chose to shelve it at the time. (I wish I hadn't.) Yet even as I became fiercely proactive about my care and whom I allowed around me, I knew something wasn't quite working. Somethingwas off, somewhere. Exactly what, I wasn't sure.
I was at Sloan for three years through every imaginable surgery, test, and chemo. I was in and out of the hospital constantly, with complications galore. I even had a brief affair — mainly in my head — but I needed it then. Now it seems pathetic — with a young, luckily gay doctor. But that's another story for another forgettable time.
I got worse in 2012 with a bowel blockage, requiring a very difficult surgery that many thought I couldn't survive — and I barely did. Here’s the kicker, the downside to my “safe bet” with Sloan Kettering: I knew something was wrong, but Sloan refused to see it. They had sent me home in remission, but I was incredibly sick, sleeping all day, and not eating. The hospital insisted on performing only standard CT scans, which kept showing up clean. Even though we were requesting PET scans, which detect the cancer activity rather than just picking up on masses, they stuck to their traditional course of treatment. I knew in my gut something was wrong, and still I let Sloan’s reputation convince me otherwise. Sloan Kettering is certainly one of the most respected institutions for cancer on the East Coast, but they are just that — an institution. It means that they only offered me drugs that had been extensively double-blind tested, injected me with the most powerful dose of these one to two types of proven chemotherapy, and insisted on doing everything by the book. (To be fair, there are some opportunities at Sloan to participate in progressive clinical trials, but for me, they were few and far between.) As it turns out, my cancer had not come back in the form of a tumor, but rather sheets of cancer cells all over my intestines — a blockage unable to be seen in a CT scan. Post-surgery, Sloan put me back on their standardized high dose of chemo, and it didn’t work. Once again my cancer returned — only this time, according to Sloan, no treatment options were left.
My daughter, Aly, and my incredible family knew it was time to move on, but also knew my fierce loyalty to the hospital. Aly pulled my Sloan Kettering doctor aside, and told her not to paint any pretty pictures, to tell it to me straight. (She knew there was no way I would leave otherwise.) Not good. Year to live. They said they would keep me as comfortable as possible. I froze again. What the hell was this? How am I supposed to deal with such information? We left and went home, and I collapsed in bed. Everything seemed to cave in.
It was a Friday in the beginning of February when my husband came to me and said we had an appointment that Monday to see Dr. Bruckner. All I could think was, “Yikes no! And to the Bronx?? No way!!” I was scared, but knew I had to go. My gut feeling was now impossible to ignore. I wasn’t ready to give up. Not yet. As I walked through the door and into a clinic very unfamiliar to me, I started to back out. Aly’s foot pushed me so hard through the door, I flew through the waiting room. She warned the nurse: "My mom is here to see Dr B. Don't let her out of here!"
Dr. B is a strange, quirky, brilliant, unusual man, and very funny. You see that right away. I liked him immediately, he’s like no one else I’ve ever met. I can't remember everything he told me, but when I asked him if I was going to die (I was always asking that question!), I just remember that he said, "Yes. But not any time soon. And not of ovarian cancer!" Huh?
I started treatment the following week. I was sure I would die, until my brilliant chemo nurse, Francine, told me, “You're fiiine! You’re already halfway through!” Dr. Bruckner created a “chemo cocktail,” low doses of some of the most progressive chemotherapy treatments, to cover all our bases. I will stay on a steady low dose of this chemo indefinitely, and will NOT be waiting in remission for my cancer to keep returning over and over again. Is it tough? Yes. Is it worth it? Well, I've been there now a year and a half, and I’ve had five consecutive clean scans. Five! Sloan told me I would have none!
Who knows what the future will bring, but here I am. The Diamond Warrior Water Bug, as I call myself. I’m not dead yet. Sometimes I feel like I am, and the journey is unending, unrelenting. I've been knocked down so many times, I can't count. But up I get. I can't give up, and I won't be squashed. I will take shit from no one. I beat to my own drum. And I have learned to say NO! when I need to.I now know my limits, what I can and can't take. “Fuck you” is just part of who I am now. When you’re in the wrong place, leave! And always, always listen to your gut. This place has saved me, and now I'm trying to save myself. Death is not an option, I have too much to live for.
Remember. If it ain't broke don't fix it. But if it is — Get the hell out from under, and chose the fork in the road. If it's there, take it! And don't look back.
Vivian Teich was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer in May of 2010. She is still on active chemotherapy at The Bruckner Center in Bronx, NY. She lives in Manhattan, is a mother of 5, and a grandmother of 11. She was formerly an actress and founded The Improvisational Theater for Children. She lived for her family, her dog, and her diamonds. She now coaches fellow cancer patients through their journeys and has been an integral part of the the expansion of The Bruckner Center.
Learn more about Bruckner Oncology.