Ovarian Cancer Survivorship and Living Without a ‘Finish Line’
How a cancer diagnosis at 26 gave one patient new perspectives on life and adventure.
Six days. That’s how quickly everything changed for Michigan artist Emma Bumstead.
One Friday in the fall of 2015, she went to see her doctor about a lingering abdominal discomfort and tightness she had first noticed during yoga class. They sent her in for a CT scan that night.
On Monday morning came a call from the University of Michigan Von Voigtlander Women's Hospital. There happened to be an opening on the calendar. They wanted to know if she could come in to meet the surgeon the next day.
And so she did. Bumstead, who was 26 at the time, met with surgeon Bethany Skinner, M.D., an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Michigan Medicine. Together, they looked at an ultrasound of a mass that appeared to be on Bumstead’s ovary, and a dark spot on the mass that was particularly concerning.
“She actually said it could be cancer, but that would be very, very rare,” Bumstead recalls. “She was like, 99% of the time, in someone young like you, it ends up being a dermoid cyst, which can develop different types of cells, like hair or teeth.”
Skinner had an opening the next day due to a cancellation. So the choice was to either have the procedure right away, or to wait six weeks.
Bumstead decided on surgery the next day, and when she awoke, she met her oncologist for the first time — Shitanshu Uppal, M.B.B.S. — and learned the mass was cancer. Uppal was called in to perform a staging surgery after Skinner removed the tumor and found that Bumstead was unfortunately part of the small fraction of young women for whom the diagnosis isn’t benign.
The tumor, however, was stage 1A — the best possible diagnosis. The cancer was confined to a single ovary, which was removed, and hadn’t spread.
Over the next four months Bumstead underwent three rounds of chemotherapy.
“Enough to lose your hair and really live the cancer survivor experience,” says Bumstead, who grew up in Chelsea.
“I’ve had some minor lingering health issues, but nothing to prevent me from living my life. Initially, you’re very concerned about it coming back. But as that five-year milestone gets closer — October 2020 — it gets a little easier.”
Art and adventure
Bumstead’s Instagram feed bustles with her vibrant artwork, which features birds and rocket ships, giraffes and bats, each nestled in colorful geometries. One video shows a project that pays homage to a recent artistic infatuation — Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama — and which is now part of the permanent collection at Brooklyn Art Library as part of The Sketchbook Project.
“I think I had an inkling early on that it would be fun to do something creative,” she says. “But as, as a kid, all you know is artist and artist equals painter. The kind of art that’s appealed to me the most has always been very technical. So that’s why a graphic design career has worked very well for me.”
For her, Bumstead says, “art doesn’t necessarily have to have some great, deep meaning. As a designer I’m constantly making things that need to communicate something, and that’s the metric for success. I love abstract art, for example, but what I love is that the viewer gets to add meaning to it rather than it having some hidden or intrinsic meaning the artist has put there.”
Prior to her diagnosis and treatment, Bumstead had been working as a designer for U-M Athletics, creating the look and feel for things like schedule posters and season tickets. It was an exciting, fast-paced environment.
But in the wake of her diagnosis and an emerging exploration of what it means to live as a cancer survivor, Bumstead found her aspirations and priorities shifting.
“I realized I wanted something a little slower paced and with a little more flexibility — the summer was always an all-hands-on-deck run up to football season, for example,” she says.
In her current role at the U-M College of Literature, Science and the Arts, Bumstead designs materials for a variety of natural science, social science and humanities departments across campus.
“I’ve had the opportunity to dig into different research areas, which is really interesting,” she explains.
The role has also allowed her more opportunities to fulfill a newly sparked travel bug.
“Definitely before I was diagnosed, no one would have said I was an outdoorsy person,” says Bumstead, who now holds a National Parks annual pass.
Last year, Bumstead received an email from Uppal, her oncologist, informing her of an opportunity to participate in a five-day backpacking trip for cancer survivors in Wyoming through True North Treks.
“I had mentioned at one point that it’s hard locally to meet people who are young adult cancer survivors,” Bumstead says. “There aren’t really that many of us, and of those there are, not everyone feels the need to meet other survivors.”
By chance, her group turned out to be all women — breast and ovarian cancer survivors, who quickly bonded.
“We all had similar experiences with chemo and similar side-effects,” Bumstead says. “A lot of them were close in age to me with familiar stories — even if they had breast cancer — and familiar things they wrestled with afterward.”
More recently, she hiked Acadia National Park in Maine. When her travel companion changed their mind just before the trip, she didn’t let it deter her.
“I credit my diagnosis for giving me a little spark of adventurousness,” Bumstead says. “And also of not limiting myself to my current definition of myself — if that makes sense. When you’re diagnosed, that’s something that you don’t want to add as an identity, but you have no choice. And something about that was kind of like, Oh, what else can I be? Besides this person I know I already am. I’m now cancer survivor — but what else?”
Despite testing her limits, the solo trip was a positive one, and one that gave her some time alone to reflect.
“Before my diagnosis I looked at travel as something you had to do with other people,” Bumstead says. “Post-cancer, I’ve discovered that sometimes it’s good to have some experiences just for yourself and with yourself.”
From patient to survivor
Asked what recommendations she has for other young adults embarking on a cancer journey, Bumstead suggests not worrying too much about the uncertain future and focusing on the here-and-now.
It’s advice she shared with another of Uppal’s young adult patients, who was struggling with a similar diagnosis.
“What I told her was to be very patient with yourself and accepting of anything that you’re feeling,” Bumstead says. “Often, if I was feeling fine physically, then emotionally I’d be fine. I’d think, ‘OK, this is a good day, let’s do something fun’. Then the next day, I might be hit with a wave a nausea — which felt like the world was ending and the cancer’s going to come back. It can be an emotional rollercoaster.”
Uppal says receiving a cancer diagnosis in your 20s can have a profound effect on patients whose peers are just starting to launch their lives, careers and families.
“NPR ran a great story a few years ago that showcased some of the challenges these patients face, which can include loss of fertility and social isolation.”
For Bumstead, the most difficult and unexpected aspect was the transition from being an active patient to a survivor, from seeing your oncologist and care team frequently to waiting months between visits.
“Even to go from every week to once every three months was very emotional,” she says. “You kind of feel like there’s this abrupt goodbye, a weird drop-off. That was definitely rough on me emotionally and rough on a lot of people I’ve talked to.”
For help processing feelings of “what now?”, Bumstead worked with a clinical social worker at U-M’s PychOncology Program. And she recommends that other patients struggling with similar feelings reach out to a therapist sooner rather than later.
“It was weird,” she reflects. “I felt like I should have felt happy to be done with treatment. I was definitely grateful, but what caught me off guard was really the grief catching up to me.”
Meanwhile, Bumstead continues to create art and to plan new trips and adventures. As she notes in a 2017 blog post reflecting back on her cancer experience:
“[T]here is no finish line to survivorship.”
Learn More About Ovarian Cancer
September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Learn more about symptoms, risk factors and early detection.