Surviving ovarian cancer

At 31 years old, Kari Koshenina didn’t think she would have to worry about ovarian cancer. That is until she woke up in the middle of the night having a panic attack.

Ovarian Cancer Survivor, Kari and her two girls“My heart was racing. My head was jumbled,” she recalled of that night in 2018. “I thought, I’ll just go sit in the chair, calm down, watch some TV. About 45 minutes later, it wasn’t getting any better, so I was getting worried.”

Concerned for her two young girls – Laney, 3, and Elli, 7 – Kari decided to reach out for help. She called her mom, who came to take her to the ER while her dad stayed with the girls at her New York Mills home.

At the Tri-County Health Care ER, she was diagnosed with a panic attack and anxiety. The next week, she went to see her primary care physician, Bobbi Adams, M.D., for a follow-up. That’s when things took a turn.

Having been Kari’s primary physician for many years, Dr. Adams noticed she wasn’t acting like herself. She asked about Kari’s periods and learned they had been off lately.

Knowing Kari was typically spot-on timing-wise and was also prone to cysts, Dr. Adams sent her down for an ultrasound. It revealed a large cyst on her left ovary. Jennifer Arnhold, M.D., OB/GYN, took over from there and recommended Kari get an MRI.

It showed that the cyst was the size of a grapefruit.

Because it was so large, Dr. Arnhold referred Kari to Jessica Thomes Pepin, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist in the Cities.

“She looked at everything and said, ‘It’s not bad. You don’t have a history. Eighty-five percent of these I remove, they’re benign,’” Kari said. “But there was just something in me that was like, it is (cancer). I just know it is.”

Dr. Pepin operated to remove the cyst in June and sent it for a quick pathology. As she was finishing the surgery, she got a call with the pathology report.

It was ovarian cancer.

Starting treatment for ovarian cancerOvarian Cancer - Hair Loss Progression

Additional tests at the Mayo Clinic revealed the cyst was an aggressive form of ovarian cancer. Dr. Pepin recommended a full hysterectomy and chemotherapy. Kari agreed and underwent the surgery in July. Her port was placed at the beginning of August, and she began chemo at Tri-County in September.

“My experience with this hospital has been nothing but amazing,” Kari said. “My chemo nurses were amazing. I got sick one time with a really low blood count and had to stay in the hospital, and they came to visit me.”

One of the hardest parts of her treatment was losing her hair. She had planned to shave it, though, not before attending an upcoming wedding. But that’s when it started falling out.

“It was almost like having a really long-haired dog in my house. Every time I’d wake up in the morning, there’d be hair on my pillow,” she said. “I think that’s when it hit me because it was falling out in clumps and I was crying because I just wanted to go to this wedding and have hair because I didn’t want to explain it.”

Her sister, who is a hairstylist, helped to make her hair presentable for the event. After that, Kari was ready to say goodbye to her locks. She shaved it the next day with the help of her daughters.

Though her girls were young, Kari tried to keep them involved in other parts of her cancer journey, including bringing them to appointments and reading them a book called “Nowhere Hair” to help explain why Mommy’s hair was gone.

Kari credits her solid support system for helping her get through treatment.

Ovarian Cancer - Hair Regrow“My family and friends, they were all wonderful and could always talk me off of a ledge. It helped, but it was hard.”

The aftermath

Kari finished chemo in December of 2018. On the day of her last treatment, she rang a bell and made her way to the exit. She was met by nurses and other staff who clapped as she walked by.

As she reflects on how it all started, waking up in the middle of the night with a panic attack, Kari believes it was divine intervention and a dependable relationship with her primary provider that allowed them to find the disease so early, leading to her recovery.

“I believe in divine intervention because of how everything happened in the right way to get me to the right spot,” she said. “For me, there was no step that went wrong. Because if Dr. Adams would have looked at me and said, ‘Let’s wait six months and see if your periods even out and if this anxiety drops,’ I wouldn’t have ever questioned her.

“It’s huge to have a provider that knows you. That matters. If you have a really good primary who knows you and knows your history, that’s the way to go. That’s definitely where it all started.”

Kari knows it typically isn’t the case for people to find ovarian cancer in the early stages, so she encourages women to find a trusted primary provider and pay attention to their bodies.

“I wish there was a telltale sign,” she said. “Listen to your body. I didn’t have to advocate for myself because all of my doctors did, but if you feel like something’s wrong, advocate for yourself.”

Though it’s been almost a year since she finished treatment, Kari still feels the effects of the disease.

“I thought, I’m 31 years old, I’ll just get through that and then I’ll go on living my life. Not the case,” she said. “I get tired. I’m basically like a 62-year-old woman. Because my metabolism is shot. I Relay for Lifewas thrown into surgical menopause. I have to take calcium pills because when you go into menopause, you have a higher risk of osteoporosis. I’m just a little old lady. Now I’m 32, a birthday I was happy to see come around.”

Celebrating a new birthday and beating what is typically a deadly cancer ultimately helped her gain a new perspective on her life.

“There’s nothing like a disease that kills people to make you realize that you have to live your life. Since I got sick, I bought a house for me and the girls, and I got into a nursing program. There’s no time like the present to live your life.”

Checking in with Kari (June 2021)

Kari had her two-year scan in January 2021 which came back clear. She recently graduated from nursing school at Northwest Technical College. Since finishing chemotherapy, she has traveled to Punta Cana, New Orleans, Nashville, Deadwood and Ft. Lauderdale.

“I am feeling better every day and living my life with my two girls!” Kari said. “I am happy and grateful to be here and will never take life for granted again!”

Even though ovarian cancer is the fifth-leading cause of cancer deaths in women, diagnosis rates over the past 20 years have been declining. Prevention is the key to continuing this trend, which is why September is designated as Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. If you have concerns about any aspect of your health, contact your primary provider.

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