Ovarian Cancer Survivor

Survivor “Lives Life to the Max”

Before she was diagnosed at age 62 with Stage IIIC ovarian cancer, Shelly Cinalli knew her husband, Joe, was absolutely amazing. His unwavering support, and that of her children, friends and support group, helps Shelly maintain her positive attitude and face her disease head on.


For more than a year, I had abdominal pain. My gynecologist ordered a vaginal ultrasound, which only showed that my ovaries were shriveled. At 62, that was expected. The discomfort didn’t subside, and I began to have urinary and bowel issues. My internist checked my gallbladder. When that looked good, he sent me to a surgeon, who thought I had pulled cartilage while exercising. She advised me to stay away from the gym for six weeks. The pain continued, and I just didn’t feel right. When I felt a sharp pain in the left side of my abdomen, I went to a walk-in clinic. The physician’s assistant suggested a colonoscopy. Joe and I were preparing to celebrate our 25th anniversary with a cruise to Italy in two weeks, and I knew I couldn’t travel feeling the way I did. Because of these plans, they squeezed me in.

The doctor couldn’t complete the colonoscopy because a mass, which he suspected was cancer, was blocking the way. He referred me to an oncologist at a local NCI-designated cancer center. After performing a CT and blood tests, the oncologist sat down with my husband, daughter and me and told me I had ovarian cancer. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even have working ovaries! He recommended surgery. He warned me that if the mass was too close to my colon, he might have to do a resection that could result in a colostomy. Instead of cruising to Italy, I had surgery the next week, and I woke up with a colostomy.

Even though I knew it was a possibility, I worried about how to handle a colostomy. I’ve always been a vocal, take-charge person, but I told one of my daughters I thought I would keep it a secret. She thought that might be very difficult, and she was right. I ended up telling everyone, and I try to laugh about it. I have my challenges. I wanted to wear a cute black dress to a wedding, so I taped up the colostomy bag and fit it under the dress. No one could tell a thing. My doctor even gave me permission to ride roller coasters with my grandchildren, so I do. The colostomy saved my life, so I make it work.

I’ve had many types of treatment. I am not a BRCA carrier so, after my first surgery, I started chemotherapy. For the past five years, my regimens included bevacizumab, carboplatin and paclitaxel; carboplatin and gemcitabine; doxorubicin and liposomal; bevacizumab again, followed by paclitaxel; and I just finished cisplatin and gemcitabine and am preparing to meet with my doctor about new drug options.

About two years into chemotherapy, I was one of the first people at my cancer center to undergo hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC). It’s quite a procedure with a long recovery time and, unfortunately, I didn’t get much benefit from it. I underwent a third surgery in an attempt to remove the colostomy, but my doctor found some lesions in the area and decided not to do it.

I’ve had different side effects. The worst are the mouth sores (Magic Mouthwash helps a lot) and peeling feet from the Doxil. I get tired, and I’m just starting to have some neuropathy in my hands, feet and ears from the cisplatin. The pegfilgrastim (Neulasta) I take for bone health has caused high fevers, and I’ve had some blood transfusions.

Through all of this, Joe has been my caregiver. He goes to all my doctor’s appointments and treatments with me. He cooks and cleans and, when I feel up to it, we do so together. We both have strong faith that has grown stronger from this experience. Together we have five children and 13 grandchildren, so we always have an activity to attend, and I hope we’re making good memories. I schedule those activities around my treatments. The only time we don’t go is if it’s too risky because of a low white blood cell count. We haven’t made it to Italy for that trip. Going overseas feels a little far right now, so we are planning a trip to San Francisco.

Even though I’ve always had a great deal of support from Joe and our children, I went to a support group for women with gynecologic cancers shortly after I was diagnosed. I hesitated because I thought it would bring me down, and it did. But, I gave it another try and I’m glad I did. We meet monthly and learn a lot from each other. I’m able to use my cosmetology experience to help others pick out wigs (I have six of my own in different styles and colors) and teach them how makeup can help hide some of their side effects. If I can help anyone feel better, it makes me happy. I would highly recommend finding a support group.

The biggest challenge for me has been seeing how my illness causes my family to worry. My mother was 84 when I was diagnosed, and I was terrified to tell her. The leader of our support group told me to simply ask her to be strong and supportive, and she was. I know it didn’t take away her pain, but it helped me tremendously.


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