Young ovarian cancer patient gives back through education and advocacy

Receiving a cancer diagnosis as a young adult, when it seems your whole life and endless possibilities are in front of you, can feel like a record-scratch moment. “Is this really happening?” “Why me?” For many young people, it is the first time they are faced with their own mortality, and if often comes in the midst of many life changes.

For Lisa Kane, her life was interrupted at 29, when doctors discovered stage IV ovarian cancer during what was supposed to be a routine benign cyst removal. She was in her final year of graduate school and eight months into a relationship with the man who would become her husband. But instead of graduation celebrations and exciting career opportunities, Lisa was faced with chemotherapy, a hysterectomy, and months of recovery to treat her disease.

After her initial treatment within Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers, the cancer stayed at bay for about nine months before it began growing again, and treatment re-started.

This was nearly 10 years ago.

Since then, Lisa has had a “little bit of everything” as far as treatment, but says although the initial diagnosis felt like putting the brakes on her life, since then, she hasn’t missed out on living a normal life. She moved in with her boyfriend—who became her fiancé, then husband—and later bought their first house together. She cannot have children due to her treatment, but otherwise, cancer hasn’t stopped her from doing everything she has wanted in life.

When Lisa was first diagnosed, one thing that was instrumental for her was meeting other young people with cancer. Lisa joined a support group specifically for young adult patients through Dana-Farber’s Young Adult Program, and attended events and conferences for this group, at which she made many close friends—some of whom she is still close with today, and others who have sadly passed away. The Young Adult Program creates an online and in-person community of young people with cancer, of any type, to provide resources, coping mechanisms, and to build connections during a challenging time.

“I think it’s really important to find someone you can talk to,” Lisa reflects. “No matter how supportive my family and friend were, they couldn’t understand. Finding someone who is your age, who understands and whom you can confide in, is so imperative. I don’t think I would have gotten through it without that community.”

Although Lisa has remained on treatment for much of the past 10 years, and will for the rest of her life, she is feeling well and living with her cancer—not letting it define her. One way she works to give back is through education and advocacy, both with Dana-Farber’s Young Adult Program and with the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC). Lisa has done fundraising runs for NOCC and met many other women in similar situations, but one of her biggest passions is educating women about this disease.

“Pre-COVID, I would go to events like the Massachusetts Women’s Conference in Boston and give out symptom cards and talk to every woman who would listen about the symptoms of ovarian cancer,” Lisa says. “Most women have no idea about the symptoms, so it’s important to educate them so if they experience symptoms, they don’t ignore them and they advocate for themselves.” Symptoms of ovarian cancer are often vague, but include bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, feeling full quickly, urinary symptoms, and changes in menstrual periods. These symptoms may also occur with benign ovarian cysts or as pre-menstrual symptoms, which is why they are sometimes overlooked.

“When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know anything about ovarian cancer,” she continues. “If I had known the symptoms, I could have advocated for myself sooner, and it could have been found a lot earlier.”

While her experience has been challenging, Lisa’s cancer has introduced her to a new community of peers and friends, and given her passion and perspective she may not have had otherwise. With her new insight, she is dedicated to helping other women advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest.