The word “cancer” gets the immediate attention of Phyllis Wenger today the same way it did 27 years ago when she learned she had it.
She was 34 years old and newly married in 1989 when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
“Cancer is just a big, bad scary word. I’ve been well all these years and still, to this day, I feel scared when I just hear the word,” the cancer survivor said.
Wenger, her husband Clifton and her then-6-year-old daughter Tanya, from a previous marriage, had just moved into a new home and were busy getting settled into their new life together when Wenger suddenly felt ill.
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“I had been feeling fine then something just changed. I didn’t know what was wrong, I just didn’t feel right and it kept getting worse. I was extremely tired. I couldn’t eat but I felt like I had eaten too much and I was all swollen and other things just weren’t right. It didn’t go away so I went to my doctor. He couldn’t find what was wrong. I kept going back to the doctor,” Wenger said.
After about a week of doctor visits, he sent her to Columbus’ hospital — then known as Bartholomew County Hospital — for tests.
Wenger had hoped for more children, but that plan was dashed when she was informed she had ovarian cancer.
“I just cried and cried,” she said.
“Do not give in to cancer. Do not live in fear. Decide what is most important to you, then focus on that, then you can deal with the cancer. Dealing with cancer made me a stronger person. It made me the person I am today.” —Phyllis Wenger
Ovarian cancer accounts for only 3 percent of cancers among women, but causes more deaths than any other cancer of the reproductive system precisely because there are no symptoms in the early stages of the disease and it is very difficult to diagnose, according to the American Cancer Society. Like Wenger, most patients are in the advanced stage of the disease by the time it is diagnosed.
Ovarian cancer starts when the body’s cells begin overproducing. While ovarian cancer begins in a woman’s ovaries where reproductive eggs and hormones are produced, the cancer can quickly spread to other pelvic organs and the liver and kidneys causing death, according to the American Cancer Society. When ovarian cancer is diagnosed, surgery to remove the ovaries is most often prescribed, followed by chemotherapy and sometimes followed by radiation.
Wenger was advised to have the surgery in Indianapolis. She had to remain eight days in the Columbus hospital in order to drain fluid away from her abdomen before she could be moved to Indianapolis, though.
The kindness of Wenger’s surgeon allowed her to relax and overcome being scared, she said.
She had to have a complete hysterectomy and then a chemotherapy treatment once every three weeks for eight months.
“I would go get hooked up to the chemo then stay overnight and go home the next day. I was very, very sick. The chemo was the hardest, but I knew I had to get through it because of my daughter. I had Tanya to think about. I was so worried about what would happen to her if I didn’t make it,” Wenger said.
Even when Wenger completed her last chemo treatment, the issue wasn’t resolved. The surgeon asked Wenger’s permission to perform another surgery.
“She said even after all the blood tests, CAT scans and all of that she couldn’t really tell what was really there until she opened me back up and looked around. I trusted her so much I said OK. She never really told me what she found when she did the surgery, but afterward she ordered a series of radiation treatments, so I guess she saw something she didn’t like,” Wenger said.
Wenger was too weak to drive her car or return to her job at Saps Bakery for a year after completing the radiation treatments. Eventually, she left Saps and took a job at the cafeteria that serves Hope Elementary and Hauser Jr.-Sr. High School, where she still works today.
Wenger and her husband still live in the same house they had when she first became ill, and she spends a lot of her free time with Tanya’s son Bladen and daughter Trinity.
Wenger advises every cancer patient to focus on what is important to them. She focused on her daughter because she wanted to see Tanya grow up, and that made her stronger, Wenger said.
“Do not give in to cancer. Do not live in fear. Decide what is most important to you, then focus on that, then you can deal with the cancer. Dealing with cancer made me a stronger person. It made me the person I am today,” she said.
RESIDES: rural Columbus
TYPE OF CANCER : Ovarian
WHEN DIAGNOSED: April 1989
FAMILY: Husband, Clifton Wenger; daughter, Tanya (Jason) Petro; grandson, Bladen Petro; granddaughter, Trinity Petro.
ADVICE: “Stay positive and keep your faith strong. Believe in your strength and do not give in to the disease. No giving up!”