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Treasure Each Year of Your Life

Paulette Ortego

Some people buy jewelry to mark life events, such as anniversaries or birthdays. In Paulette Ortego's case, it's to celebrate life itself.

"I reward myself with a small piece of jewelry for every year I'm in remission from cancer," says Ortego, who finished treatment in 2004.

But, cancer was only one of a series of challenges the Baldwin, La., resident faced – challenges that could have defeated her but instead made her stronger.

It started in March 1999 when she had a heart attack following a particularly bad episode of supraventricular tachycardia, a condition that causes a rapid heart rate. Ortego was fortunate and her heart condition stabilized. But, her health problems weren't over. Two months after that, she was diagnosed with thyroid disease. Later, she learned that she had Type 2 diabetes.

During this difficult time, she and her family faced a terrible tragedy. "My husband of 30 years was killed in a car accident," Ortego says. She and her daughter, Daena, helped each other cope with this tremendous loss.

Through it all, Ortego persevered. She followed her medication schedule for her health conditions, and resolved to make lifestyle changes and move on with her life.

The battle with cancer

Unfortunately for Ortego, moving on wouldn't be so simple. After all that she'd been through, she was now faced with another frightening diagnosis: ovarian cancer.

When diagnosed early, the five-year survival rate for this cancer is high – 93 percent. However, only 20 percent of women are diagnosed before their cancer has advanced. That's often because the symptoms, when present, are usually vague. They include abdominal pain, bloating and frequent urination, which can also be signs of other common conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome or a urinary tract infection.

Ortego, who is 60, traveled a difficult road to get the right diagnosis. "No one could tell me what was wrong," she says. "I had gained some weight. And, I had various aches and pains. But, it was nothing that couldn't be explained by my age or menopause."

It was extreme discomfort from bloating that drove Ortego to seek help. She had a number of tests. But, none revealed the cause of her problems. Finally, one day she went to the emergency room. "I was miserable," she says. "I had trouble walking and breathing. I couldn't even get behind the wheel of my car."

Ortego had so much excess fluid in her abdomen that an ultrasound image couldn't penetrate it. Her next step was to see a surgeon. And, that's when the puzzle pieces started to fall into place. A test for a tumor marker called CA-125 revealed she probably had ovarian cancer. She was scheduled for surgery.

"I wasn't really surprised to hear I had cancer," she says. "I was just relieved to finally have an idea what was wrong."

Beating the odds

When Ortego awoke after her surgery, she was 60 pounds lighter. She'd had a radical hysterectomy to remove the tumor. And, the surgeon had also taken more than 16 liters of fluid from her abdomen. "I felt wonderful, even though I'd just had surgery," she says. "I was also lucky – the tumor hadn't metastasized."

Ortego kept up this positive attitude through her chemotherapy. She managed to do so even while working four 10-hour days in order to have treatments on Friday, recover over the weekend and return to work on Monday. When her hair started to fall out as a result of treatment, she shaved her head. "It made me feel like I was in control, not the cancer," she says.

She counted on her friends, family and co-workers to help her get through. And, she relied on UnitedHealthcare. "Any questions I had, they answered quickly and kindly," she says. "I never had one minute of worry about whether the bills were being paid."

When Ortego finished chemotherapy in December 2004, she felt empowered. Her reward was a normal CA-125 test – and a pair of sapphire earrings.

Asking the right questions

Looking back, Ortego sees puzzle pieces she could have put together sooner. Family history is an important risk factor of ovarian cancer, and she had an aunt who died of it. "Women need to know their family history," she says. "Then, talk with your doctor about your other risks."

Ortego gets tested every six months to see if she's still cancer-free. A year after her first earrings, she rewarded herself with opals, her birthstone. Then came amethysts and then rubies. This year is emeralds.

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