Australian Expat Carolyn Soemarjono was always pegged as the fit and healthy member in her company; a human resources professional, she headed up the corporate health and wellbeing programme. She was the one having salads for lunch, the non-smoker, the marathon runner, the epitome of healthy living. So when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer 12 weeks after running the Tokyo Marathon, she was shocked to her core. She shares her inspiring story of survival, and how running saved her life.
Prior to her diagnosis, Carolyn began to notice uncharacteristic changes in her energy levels. “I went from being energetic to inexplicably fatigued. I had been an active runner for six years and I suddenly found myself unable to do the things I had been doing with ease,” she recalls.
She initially put it down to stress, but it was the change in her running ability that really pushed her to find out what was at the root of her sudden energy depletion.
Carolyn’s early medical tests showed nothing, but she remained convinced something was wrong. She conducted research and came up with a shot-in-the-dark diagnosis. She returned to her doctor with the suggestion that it might be ovarian cancer; the doctor felt for swelling typical of the condition, and felt nothing. But an ultrasound changed everything – they detected a malignant cyst.
“A lot of people may think ‘Why me?’, but I never thought that. I simply wondered ‘Why now?’ I thought if I was going to get cancer (which is in my family) it would be in my 60s. But there I was, 42, in good health and diagnosed with cancer. It was just surreal,” she says.
Carolyn was diagnosed on a Wednesday, consulted a surgeon on the Thursday, had the weekend to get her head around it and consider her options and was wheeled into surgery the following Monday. The cancer was in its early stages but aggressive, so operating was critical. After surgery to remove the cyst, Carolyn began weekly chemotherapy sessions to eradicate any remaining cancer cells and to prevent any existing cancer from spreading.
“When you’re the patient, it’s a kind of out-of-body experience where the chaos seems to happen all around you,” she explains. “I think it was tougher on my husband Radi and daughter Leah.”
Carolyn set herself a goal to walk every day in the Botanic Gardens. But the drugs took their toll and she had days where she could hardly move. She would take drugs to help with the chemo-induced nausea, which would in turn produce their own set of debilitating side effects.
Thankfully, the chemotherapy fulfilled its purpose and after 18 weeks, tests confirmed that there were no more signs of cancer present. Carolyn was in remission.
“Breast cancer and ovarian cancer are linked, so the mistake I made was going for my annual check up and only having a mammogram. What I was not doing – and what I would recommend that every woman do – is to have an ultrasound as well. You need to cover as many bases as possible,” she advises.
Carolyn only started running in her late 30s. “Everyone around me seemed to be running, so I thought ‘If you can’t beat them, join them!’ I was convinced that 5km was the absolute maximum I would ever do!”
But lo and behold, Carolyn then completed her first 10km, and then her first half marathon. In 2007, she ran the Berlin Marathon. “It took me five and a half hours. By the last leg I was crying in pain, vowing that I would never do it again!” she says. Nevertheless, she signed up for the Tokyo Marathon in 2011, running it in an impressive four hours and 20 minutes. That was three months before her diagnosis.
“I thought about fighting cancer in similar terms to marathon running – it was just a different kind of marathon. When you train, you don’t do it by yourself – you get advice from people, set goals along the way and work at overcoming physical and mental obstacles,” says Carolyn.
When her hair started falling out, Carolyn took control: she organised a lunch with friends and they made a short film of her shaving her hair off. “I decided to make an event of it; I wanted to turn a negative circumstance into something positive,” she explains. The next day, her husband and friends – who had also shaved their hair off – joined her in a charity run.
Carolyn also walked the Standard Chartered Marathon last year, raising $6,000 for the Singapore Cancer Society and still finishing in the top 50th percentile!
A major support to Carolyn during chemo was the CanHOPE Expat Cancer Support Group, facilitated by the Parkway Cancer Centre. “Doctors are clinical in their approach; your emotional reaction is not really taken into account. The support group is fantastic – everything beyond my medical treatment I found out by way of the group. You discuss the things that your doctors don’t mention – such as your eyelashes falling out… twice. You share your day-to-day experiences together.”
Carolyn continues to attend the support group. “I’m open about my experience and I attract people who need to talk about theirs. I enjoy playing that supportive role,” she says.
“A lot of people ask me how my outlook on life has changed after cancer, and I’d say that the biggest change I’m trying to make is to find a balance,” Carolyn says. “I was living a healthy life in terms of exercise and diet, but I was not taking my emotional wellbeing into equal consideration. I believe that stress is a key factor in weakening one’s immune system, so I’m focussing on emotional relaxation. I’ve also introduced foods with anti-cancer properties to my diet. At the end of the day, it’s important to tick as many boxes as possible to do everything in your power to keep healthy.”
For more information on the CanHOPE Expat Cancer Support Group run by the Parkway Cancer Centre, visit www.parkwaycancercentre.com and https://canhope.org. Contact Laura Williams on 8339 4120 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.