Photo by Sydney Cromwell.
Alice Laurendine, a former principal at Vestavia Hills Elementary West and one of the first Vestavia Hills High School teachers, sits at her Hoover home.
At first, Alice Laurendine could easily explain away the downturn in her health.
Backaches weren’t surprising, as she had already had two back surgeries. Weight gain and bloating could be easily explained away. Frequent fatigue? Well, Laurendine was in her 60s and had always been one to stay too busy.
As the symptoms continued, the Hoover resident and retired Vestavia Hills educator began researching pancreatic, colon and other different types of cancer. But she was diagnosed in 2008 with the one thing she never even thought to look up: ovarian cancer. It seemed impossible – Laurendine had a hysterectomy and her ovaries removed 23 years ago.
“I didn’t even think about ovarian cancer because I had my ovaries removed,” Laurendine said. “Maybe if I had, I’m not sure I would have accepted that thought anyway.”
Laurendine first began experiencing symptoms of cancer at age 67. When a day of severe abdominal pain made her unable to attend a football game or sleep, Laurendine’s husband took note. Around 4 a.m., he suggested they go to the emergency room. Laurendine is glad she didn’t argue.
“If I had refused, I mean who knows what would have happened,” Laurendine said.
At the emergency room, doctors found a cancerous mass where her ovaries would have been. Laurendine, her husband and daughter were all in disbelief when they found out.
“You can have everything removed, you can have a complete hysterectomy. You have reduced the risk; you have not removed the risk. And that’s what happened to me,” Laurendine said.
Surgery to remove the mass was quickly followed by a round of chemotherapy. Laurendine cycled between good days when she could drive and see people and bad days when she wouldn’t leave the house. She kept flowers and cards all around her home for encouragement, but occasionally found herself crying in the kitchen at night because she couldn’t believe the diagnosis.
“It was hard because I had cancer. I mean, the big C-word,” Laurendine said. “Cancer was something I knew nothing about.”
Throughout the process, Laurendine said she couldn’t have kept up her spirits without faith and the support of her family and friends. This included her beautician, who took care of Laurendine’s hair at no charge as soon as it began to fall out from the chemo.
In the midst of doctor’s visits and tests, Laurendine went back to her education roots.
“During that I had time to think. And I thought, ‘I’m supposed to do something with this.’ And I thought, ‘OK, awareness is my thing. I can teach people about awareness,’” Laurendine said.
While she doesn’t make ovarian cancer the center of her life, Laurendine shares her story and answers questions when friends connect her with women diagnosed with ovarian cancer or their family members. She has a packet ready with information and questions to ask doctors, so others aren’t caught unprepared like she was.
“You learn a lot. You learn that you’re vulnerable and that you don’t want anyone else to go through that, but you can’t feel sorry for yourself,” she said.
However, she’s also careful about what she shares, so she doesn’t overwhelm women as they come to grips with their diagnosis.
“It can scare somebody if they heard what you might be going through, might be too difficult,” Laurendine said. “There are moments I look back and think, ‘How did I get through that?’”
One of the valuable lessons Laurendine learned from her unlikely diagnosis was how to deal with enormous problems one day at a time.
“That’s your life, so you can’t say ‘When this is over I’ll …’” Laurendine said. “You’ve got to think in terms of ‘This is the new normal for me, and we will deal with it today, and tomorrow we’ll deal with that then.’”