It’s the female cancer few will talk about, as if talking about it will make it more deadly – or contagious – or all of the above (and neither is true).
And it’s the cancer that Pocketbook Monologues creator and St. Louis native Sharon K. McGhee is in her third fight against in the last two-and-a-half years.
The word "pocketbook" was coined a couple of generations ago by our most senior and seasoned African-American sisters pertaining to those most discreet subjects of a sexual nature.
“And there are some rules that went with it – keep it closed, don’t people ramble all in it—make sure your pocketbook is clean.” McGhee said.
McGhee created the Pocketbook Monologues to talk to black women and girls about taking responsibility for their own sexual health, following the design of Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler. Soldout performances in Chicago where McGhee currently resides preceded her most challenging role yet.
“It also started a new chapter in my life -- I was diagnosed [in 2009] with stage 4 ovarian cancer, three weeks fbeore I got the phone call to be a part of the Housewives of Atlanta franchise,” McGhee said. Her decision – chemotherapy the next week or jump on the creative opportunity of a lifetime to deal with a cause she is so passionate about – the HIV epidemic in black women.
“So what’s a girl to do? I tell you what I did. I put my wigs in a suitcase and my Vicodin in my overnight bag and we went down to Atlanta and filmed a wonderful show,” she said. “But what people don’t know, while it all looked great on television, it was the roughest time for me, because in another three weeks, I had another chemotherapy treatment.”
There are three types of ovarian cancer, depending on what type of tissue is involved. Epithelial cells cover the ovaries, the two egg-shaped organs on either side of a woman’s reproductive system. Germ cells create the eggs inside of the ovaries. Stromal cells are the tissue which holds the ovaries together and makes most of the female hormones, estrogen and progesterone.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) says higher risk factors for the most common type of ovarian cancer (epithelial) include:
- Age- half of all these cancers are in women over age 63
- Obesity- an ACS study found a higher incidence and a higher death rate among obese women
- Fertility drugs
- Male hormones, or androgens
- Estrogen therapy after menopause
- Family history of ovarian, breast or colorectal cancer
McGhee said it almost felt like she was getting her blessing in the middle of her hurricane.
“God was showing me this balance of my life and what it is to actually live with a cancer diagnosis, deal with everything that goes with it – the surgery, the depression … to understand this diagnosis happens to a lot of people and that you can find your will through God and through perseverance to live and thrive with it,” McGhee said. “I never wanted the cancer to have me.”
Ovarian cancer usually strikes women after menopause, but it can occur at any age. Early detection of ovarian cancer is difficult, because oftentimes, women with ovarian cancer have no symptoms or just mild symptoms until the disease is in an advanced stage and hard to treat.
“The day that I was diagnosed with cancer, my mom died of a debilitating stroke. She had been sick for almost a year-and-a-half,” McGhee said. “I would leave Chicago on Friday, go to St. Louis, take care of my mom.
“So when people would say, ‘Wow, it looks like you are losing weight,’ I would say, I’m stressed out because my mom is dying. I’m tired – my mom is dying,” she summed up.
“Every symptom that I had that told me loud and clear that my body was in need of care, I masked under the influence of ‘My Mom Needs Me,’” she said.
“I had every symptom of ovarian cancer known – the bloating, the heavy bleeding; the weight loss – but we now know that a pap smear will not diagnose ovarian cancer.”
After her radical hysterectomy to remove a cancerous tumor the size of a grapefruit, McGhee said she left Chicago to attend her mother’s funeral in St. Louis, and returned back to Chicago for chemo.
The cancer returned a year later, in 2010, and McGhee completed her scheduled appearances before more surgery and chemo.
“I call it The Curious Case of Cancer,” McGhee described. “I started to think of chemo like a carwash. You can get the $5 wash, the $6 wash, the $7 wash, right? But if you pay for the $7 wash, they got this extra blaster on the side. But when you come out, there’s still going to be some little particles of dirt and dust around. And that’s what I think of chemo inside of my body. Like we are washing to get all of these bad cells out, but we might not get all of them. And that’s where I am right now -- they didn’t get all of them.”
Her father, best friend and family in St. Louis and involvement in support groups are providing strong emotional support through now her third bout, which occurred six months ago.
McGhee’s experiences incited a new voice, another monologue – this time about the commonalities among everyone who has a form of “The Big C.”
“After your initial diagnosis, there are some universal themes that we all share: depression is depression; chemo is chemo; having your body cut and then body parts removed … I had to find some sort of way to make this work for me,” McGhee said.
One way is point out the cultural differences in dealing with chemo.
“I loved my curly mane, but I don’t remember anyone mentioning you would lose hair there too. I am not missing the hair on my head – I am missing the hair on my pocketbook, and that’s a big thing for women,” McGhee said.
“And I notice when I go for chemo that most of the black women wear wigs and most of the white women are bald.”
And after talking about it at the Missouri Black Expo in August in St. Louis, McGhee said when the Cancer Monologues rolls out this Fall, it will include her presentation and Q & A between a doctor and the audience.
“When women and when men leave, they leave knowing more than when they came,” McGhee explained. “I think telling the truth, finally, through my grace is what I should be doing now – telling my truth.
“Our body speaks to us loud and clear. We are not listening.”