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Healing and Health Following Ovarian Cancer

by Carolyn S. Ellis

Carolyn Ellis
Carolyn Ellis

Orchard Avenue is one of my favorite walks. The narrow lane winds through a quiet neighborhood, with homes widely spaced and set well back. The widest curve skirts a meadow that’s just right for sledding.

Blustery winds often race down the hillside and whistle through a tall grove of hemlock and white pine. The sound of the wind in the branches and its feel on my face take me back to a favorite story from childhood, Heidi, by Johanna Spyri.

In this late 19th century Swiss classic, the orphaned child Heidi is brought to live with her reclusive grandfather, known as Alm-Uncle, in his cottage in the Alps. Heidi befriends the lonely shepherd Peter and the goats he tends. After a time, Heidi is taken to Frankfurt to live with a wealthy family and their daughter Clara who cannot walk.

Heidi learns to read but is terribly homesick, so sick that the adults decide she should return to her free-form life at Alm-Uncle’s. Summer comes, and Heidi’s dream comes true when Clara in her wheelchair comes for an extended stay. After jealous Peter sends the wheelchair crashing down the mountain, Clara discovers that she can walk.

As a child, I loved the cheerful and complex heroine, beautiful mountain setting, and happy ending. I could easily imagine myself at Alm-Uncle’s small cabin sheltered by tall spruce. I could smell the meadow grasses and flowers, feel the warm sunshine, and hear Peter calling to his little herd.

My edition of Heidi had a few beautiful illustrations, each painting a delight after pages of text. There was plenty of space for a child’s imagination to soar as she read the story.

As an adult, I have come to see Heidi as a healer, the first I can recall. Heidi paves the way for invalid Clara to stay with her and Alm-Uncle on the mountainside. Heidi seems instinctively to know that Clara could walk again, and she herself has experienced the joy and misery that come from different environments.

There probably was more to Clara’s visit than leaving the city for the countryside. Perhaps she got away from a home infused with discouragement and resignation. Maybe drinking fresh goat’s milk was beneficial. Certainly when her wheelchair tumbled down the mountain, Clara had extra motivation to walk.

But most important, Heidi’s belief that Clara could walk again let Clara see the possibility. As a child I loved the idea that one could get well. I shared Clara’s and Heidi’s triumph when Clara walked.

More than 30 years later, when my daughter was about Heidi’s age, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. That was life-changing, as women who have received a cancer diagnosis know.

Surgery and chemotherapy treatments, although difficult, went well. I was grateful for the fortunate outcome, but I faced an uncertain future. The odds of making it to five years were somewhat better than two in ten.

Unable to “go home and forget about cancer,” as my surgeon recommended, I needed to do something. Since my doctors offered no after-care besides frequent monitoring with the CA-125 blood test, “get well and stay well” became my mantra.

Pen and Ink drawing by Martha Baldwin
Pen and ink drawing by multi-media artist Martha Baldwin

My mountaintop experience occurred in the public library. I was unfamiliar with ovarian cancer prior to diagnosis, and I had heard it was important to be an informed patient. I was finding, however, that I couldn’t read about ovarian cancer. The material was discouraging, and I was frightened enough. I put away the reading list I had been given at the hospital and headed to the library.

Scanning the cancer section in the stacks, I found several shelves with cancer survivors’ stories. These were tales of health and healing, achieved outside traditional medicine. These weren’t advertisements touting the latest life-saving product that you just had to purchase, these were books written by cancer patients about how they had gotten well. Having done enough writing to know it isn’t easy, I was pretty sure these stories were true.

What I found most striking was that everyone had done something different. There were many ways to achieve health! Many had changed their diet, and where one subsisted on almonds and cantaloupe, another avoided all tree nuts and fruit.

That their methods varied didn’t disturb me; I saw that there are many routes to healing. I still had weeks of treatment ahead of me, but I had found a glimmer of hope, the possibility that I might find my own path to getting well and staying well.

In the years following treatment, I tried many alternative modalities, from acupuncture (although I am no friend of needles) to yoga, and from massage (that was an easy one, although finding the right therapist took a few tries) to visualization. I made changes in my diet and dealt with the grief of having lost my mother as a teen.

Throughout this journey I have met many ordinary people like Heidi who believe in healing and have wisdom to share. Some live simple lives, taking good care of themselves and those they love. Others offer products like herbal remedies, services like Reiki, or training in mindfulness to help others.

I remain humble about the future, but sixteen years after treatment for ovarian cancer, I have to accept that I am one of the two in ten that survive to five years. That these sixteen years have been tumor and treatment free leaves me marveling that healing does happen.

For me the story of Heidi demonstrates that health and healing are possible and worth searching for. When our minds and hearts are open, others share their stories and all benefit.

For more than 15 years, Carolyn Ellis has written about people of all ages who are passionate about all kinds of things, including healing, recycling, ministering to persons without housing, financial planning, and music.

After personal experience with ovarian cancer in 1994, she embraced alternative medicine -- learning, sharing and pursuing many ways to get well and stay well.

A lifelong Massachusetts resident and more recently, a summer vacationer in Eastham, a perfect day for her is watching the sunrise at Coast Guard Beach and sunset over Cape Cod Bay.

She would like to hear from other women who have returned to good health following ovarian cancer. Carolyn can be reached at

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