Ovarian Cancer Alters Tech Student's LifeBy Audra Norris
December 19, 2010
Iona Parks can change her hairstyle at a speed most girls would kill for. If you were to see her around Virginia Tech’s campus during the day, chances are her hair would look drastically different at dinner that night. Some would admire her versatility, but the wigs she wears tell a much more sobering truth: at just 19 years old, she is a survivor of ovarian cancer.
As a freshman, Parks majored in electronic and print journalism while seeking a minor in film. Her year started they way it does for many college freshmen every year. She went to class and went out on the weekends. For the most part, things were working out according to plan.
Starting in December of 2009, however, she started to feel slightly off. “I felt like there was an object inside me, and then in January I just felt really uncomfortable stomach pains,” Parks said. After an uneventful visit to Schiffert Health Center where several tests were conducted, she recalled that she was told she most likely had a simple virus and was instructed to take Tylenol and codeine.
She was told to keep her test results in case her virus worsened and she was rushed to the ER, which is exactly what happened on Feb. 28. On her way to take a test, Parks’ minor discomfort evolved into a pain much more unbearable.
“It was so scary. I literally felt like my spleen was going to explode or my stomach was going to burst,” she said.
Despite her pain, she decided to continue on and finish her test, at the end of which she called her sister, Virginia, who was living in Blacksburg at the time. When the two sisters arrived at the emergency room, Parks was asked a bewildering question.
“They wanted to know how far along I was,” she said. “They honestly thought I was six months pregnant (because) my stomach was swollen. After they took a CT scan they realized I had a ten-pound tumor wrapped around my right ovary.”
The doctors urged that she immediately undergo emergency surgery. Parks said she was told that her right ovary couldn’t be salvaged, but that maybe it had not spread and with the surgery the left ovary might be saved.
“I was terrified. I thought of babies and if I’d ever be able to have them,” she said.
The mass was then removed and determined to be benign, leaving Parks with only a scar as a souvenir. “The doctor told me that it was right at my bikini line so no one would notice it, but bathing suits must have been a lot higher back in his day because it’s right at my belly button,” she laughed.
Her left ovary was saved, however Parks was still subjected to monthly CT scans to ensure she remained healthy. She consistently produced clean results from February until June, when a scan showed that something appeared to be growing where her right ovary used to be. An ultrasound found a fist-sized growth situated in place of the ovary, which was then removed in July.
This time, she wasn’t as lucky. The mass was malignant, and doctors were leery of how quickly it had grown between scans.
“I had a post-op appointment one day where my doctor was supposed to tell me everything was fine. Instead they led me to a room with nothing in it but a chair and a box of tissues; they told me I would need chemotherapy,” Parks said. “I felt like I was watching a crappy Lifetime movie of my life. I was pissed.”
Once the initial anger and shock subsided, her thoughts turned to her hair. “I was afraid I was going to stick out all the time, I was worried my boyfriend at the time wouldn’t find me attractive anymore,” she said. “It sounds like such a superficial thing, but I couldn’t stand the thought of it.”
Parks’ diagnosis was surprising considering the fact that there had been no trace of ovarian cancer in her family.
“Ovarian cancer is not common in teens or with women in their 20s,” said former Medical College of Virginia oncology nurse Karen Jones. “However survival odds are very good if it is caught in the early stages because then there is less chance of spreading.”
According to the American Cancer Society, over half of the women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are over the age of 60.
She was told that she would go through four chemotherapy treatments. The thought was overwhelming, but for Parks, the moment her cancer became a reality was the day she started losing her hair. She was moving into her apartment in August when she noticed more strands falling from her scalp than usual.
“I went to bed with most of my hair, and woke up without any,” she said. “I didn’t even have a wig with me, so I had to go to the costume shop down the road where I had a great selection of afros and mullets.”
Parks surprised many people, including her family and academic advisor, when she decided to continue school in the fall of 2010. She opted to take only three classes as a part-time student since her treatment would be taking place at the Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C., near her hometown of Vienna, Va.
The constant back and forth coupled with exhausting chemotherapy would be too much for many to handle, but she took it in stride. In her darkest moments, Parks gained strength from the support of her family, specifically from her cousin also currently undergoing chemotherapy.
“Here he is, this big guy in his 20s telling me that he’s not sure he can take much more. But I felt like the two of us were in it together, like it was a family thing,” she said.
Her constant safety net of support was stretched to the limits during one episode in October that almost cost Parks her life. Suddenly overcome with chills one night, her temperature soared to over 103 degrees and she was rushed to the hospital where she was placed in the ICU. Doctors told her that she had pneumonia and had gone into septic shock, the combination of which could have killed her in her sleep that night without medical attention.
After a two-week stay, Parks said that she could feel her strength returning. Compared to her position almost one year ago exactly, she has made other vast improvements. In November she was informed that her cancer was in remission, and the likelihood of its return is low. She also has big plans that she wants to accomplish thanks to the return of her health.
“I had wanted so many things this semester. I wanted to take French, I wanted to take cinema, I want to go abroad; but I felt like cancer was holding me back from more than my friends and education,” Parks said. “I felt like my independence had been taken from me.”
While she still undergoes regular CT scans, Parks can now breathe a little easier as she heads into the spring semester of her sophomore year. Her health, as well as her outlook on life, has turned around completely.
“I’ve become much more focused on school, I feel more mature. I think the whole thing made me grow up really fast. But I also feel like I can laugh at myself a little easier now, like I shouldn’t take everything so seriously,” Parks said.
At the young age of 19, Iona Parks has endured more than most of her peers can ever imagine. Battling ovarian cancer was never in her grand plan; however now that she has fought, and won, she is confident in what she is able to accomplish. A fight like hers speaks volumes about Parks’ character, more so than her hairstyle ever could.