Cancer was the furthest thing from Diem Brown's mind when she suddenly collapsed in the midst of a flag football game in the summer of 2004. The entertainment reporter and MTV reality star was rushed to the hospital. "Everyone thought I had burst my appendix," she recalls. "But doctors found a precancerous tumor the size of a 2-liter Coke bottle." Diem, who was training for MTV's Real World/Road Rules Challenge, was just 22 at the time. "I was completely shocked," she says. Although she'd been experiencing slight bloating and abdominal pain after eating, she hadn't thought anything was seriously wrong.
A year later, the abdominal pain returned. "I was doubled over…every time I ate," she says. "I thought, Maybe I have celiac disease or I'm lactose-intolerant." After losing 25 pounds, Diem saw her doctor, who discovered she had a cyst the size of a cantaloupe. It turned out to be Stage III ovarian cancer. "It felt like a bad dream," she recalls. "I didn't want to tell anyone."
A week later, Diem's doctor removed her left ovary and some lymph nodes. Afterward, she received six to seven months of chemotherapy. At the time, Diem's biggest fear was losing her hair. "Once I lost my hair, I couldn't ignore the fact that I was sick," she says. "I didn't recognize the girl in the mirror."
Diem, who was a freelance entertainment reporter at the time, says she became angry and depressed. "I wanted to continue working," she says. "But I didn't have the money for a legitimate wig. So I went to a Halloween store and picked up a flapper wig. I'd wear it to interview celebrities who were having fabulous lives." At one point, a security guard told her she was "visually offensive." "His words gave validity to my feelings," she says. "I thought, I'm going to hide in my apartment. I didn't want to see anyone."
Diem started going online, where she saw girlfriends' wedding and baby shower registries. "I thought, Why isn't there something for cancer patients who don't have money for treatments, wigs and travel expenses?" she recalls. So Diem launched MedGift, which lets patients "register" for the assistance they need. "It was my light of hope," she says. "I finally found a reason why I was going through all of this."
With MedGift, patients can register for financial assistance, a wig, a ride to treatments or prayers. "It takes the pride out of asking for help," says Diem. Patients can sign up for the program through their hospital. For more information, go to medgift.com.
After Diem finished her treatments, she went into remission for six years. "I thought I was fine," she says. Then, the abdominal pain came back, and she noticed she had lost weight. She had a CA-125 blood test—which measures the amount of a protein found in most ovarian cancer cells—and her results were normal. She had her annual checkup, and once again everything seemed okay. One week later, she called her doctor because the abdominal pain continued. She was given an internal ultrasound, and "the doctor found an 8-inch cyst on my ovary," she says. "If I hadn't gone back then, I would have waited an entire year to be checked."
Diem had surgery to remove the cyst, and she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer—the same kind she had in her other ovary. It turns out that the type of cancer she has (mucinous) can't be detected via a CA-125 test. "I wasn't angry this time; I was numb," she recalls.
Diem underwent fertility treatments to retrieve and freeze eggs before she lost her remaining ovary. "I want hope at the end of the tunnel," she says of her desire to become a biological mom. So far, she's had 10 eggs frozen. Afterward, she had surgery to remove the last part of her remaining ovary. Her doctor told her that her cancer may have actually started in another part of her body.
Diem is committed to raising awareness of cancer. She participated in the Stand Up To Cancer Telethon, a televised event during which celebrities raise money for cancer research. She has started chemotherapy and is blogging about it. She recently wrote, "I'm trusting that my personal doctor and his colleagues will find the best way to help me fight back and kick the hell out of whatever cancer is in me!"
- Do things that make you happy. "You can choose to be happy," says Diem. "Go outside and enjoy the sun or plan a vacation for when you're done with chemo."
- Be active. "I'm a runner, and I ran throughout my cancer treatment [the first time]," says Diem. "It's a great way to lift your spirits. When I didn't feel well, I walked." She plans to continue running during her next course of treatment.
How it might help you: Exercise can boost your energy, relieve stress, and decrease anxiety and depression during treatment, according to the American Cancer Society.
- Take charge of your diet. "I try to visualize cancer," says Diem. "I see 'good guys' and 'bad guys.' Every time I eat a tortilla chip, I feel like I'm giving cancer [the edge]. So I'll eat an apple instead."
- Put a positive spin on bad experiences. "I believe everything happens for a reason," says Diem. "I can look back at my life and see that good things come out of every bad experience. During my first battle with cancer, for instance,
I founded MedGift."
- Be open-minded about dietary changes. "My favorite drink is Diet Sunkist," admits Diem. "But my doctor told me that when you're undergoing chemo, you can't keep food down. If you practice juicing, some nutrients will stay in you." Diem plans to buy a juicer, which extracts juices from fresh fruits and uncooked vegetables.
How it might help you: Fresh juice contains plenty of cancer-fighting vitamins and plant compounds, and it's easily absorbed by the body, according to the Stanford Cancer Institute, a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer center in Stanford, CA.