Dear me: Survivor of ovarian cancer offers heartfelt advice to her earlier self

City of Hope Orange County grateful patient Heidi Paolone recently sent a letter back in time — to herself, on the day she was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer.

The letter recounts the emotions, challenges, and growth that lay ahead, through the lens of the individual who experienced them.

Paolone said she created the letter both as part of her personal healing journey and as a way to offer support to others. Patients with cancer often say hearing — and learning from — the stories of other patients increases their well-being and helps them know they are not alone as they face a disease that can be isolating.

Here is Paolone’s letter, sharing the things she wished she had known at diagnosis.

Dear Scared and Vulnerable,

Today, you will learn what it means to be fearful. You will hear the words, “You have a rare form of ovarian cancer.” You will need injections, infusions, MRIs, bone scans, x-rays, and complex surgery. You will feel like you are always at a medical appointment, and those appointments are constant reminders of your illness.

On the day of your surgery, you will feel intensely vulnerable and afraid that you will not be there for your children. You are about to question everything and at the same time be overwhelmed with information. There will be unexpected treatments and side effects from medications. Your mind will be filled almost entirely with thoughts of your disease and possible cures. Questionable sources will promise you miracles in a bottle. You will be reminded daily of your disease every time you see your scar or feel your joints ache. The unexpected loss, to cancer, of a dear friend and supportive mentor will be an early setback in your journey.

But as unimaginable as it may seem, you can be scared and brave at the same time. As impossible as it may look at this moment, cancer will not define you. You will be blessed with new connections. You will find a community of like-minded women and share your journeys together. You will befriend other patients and find kindness in strangers. You will be grateful for friends who reconnect and reach out with love and support. Pay attention to the fighters, and join with people who lift you up. Let your friends and neighbors help you. You will be amazed at the goodness that surrounds you. People will follow through so you don’t have to do it alone.

You will inspire others with your story and become a hero to your children. Five months after surgery, you will be thankful that your body hasn’t let you down. You will run a half marathon. A loving friend will introduce you to yoga. You will discover a new hobby — Pilates — as a way to manage pain. You are going to travel to beautiful places with your family this year. You will stop being preoccupied with researching cancer and supplements, and your frustration and anxiety will fade.

The peace of mind you will gain will come from having a highly skilled and compassionate physician at City of Hope Orange County, Joshua G. Cohen, M.D., who is an expert in your type of cancer. There, you will continually receive incredible care, advice and reassurance from a team that sees you as an individual and gives you the tools you need, physically and emotionally.
Cancer taught you to put the “to do list” down and be kind to yourself. To not be preoccupied with information that makes you afraid. To listen to your intuition. To be patient and not jump to conclusions or create false stories in your head.

For the journey ahead: When you feel overwhelmed, just breathe. Protect your energy and set boundaries. When you feel you do not have control of a situation, focus on the things you can control. Listen and be open to advice that could change your perspective. Don’t compare your journey to other people’s journeys. Instead of being caught up in statistics or chasing supplements and treatments that aren’t backed by evidence, just focus on enjoying your life. Cancer is going to change your life, but you can manage it. Have the fortitude to advocate for yourself, speak up and ask questions.

There will be times of sadness, but also times of hope and unexpected beauty. You will be the energetic and positive person you were before. You will live for the future, not the past. All the things you thought you could not do, you did! And you will take your experience with cancer and use it to inspire others.

Dear Scared and Vulnerable, you will learn what it means to be strong. You never know how strong you are until it’s the only option given. You will see the world in a different way and choose to surround yourself with positive people who push you to be the best. Don’t forget, fearing what may happen tomorrow robs you of enjoying today. Know that you will keep your optimism, determination and desire to live life to its fullest. Cancer cannot — will not — take that from you.

With Hope and Gratitude,
Heidi of 2024

Navigating a cancer diagnosis requires more than focusing on your physical health.  At City of Hope Orange County, comprehensive cancer care extends beyond advanced treatments and technology. We’re here to support and heal the whole person — mind, body and soul — from prevention and screenings into survivorship. Learn more about supportive care medicine and integrative oncology at City of Hope Orange County.

Learn how to navigate a cancer diagnosis. Call 888-333-HOPE (4673).

Listen to Heidi read her letter: