Sarah Ludinich enjoyed being a carefree 21-year-old for less than 24 hours. Afterward, she was compelled to make life-altering medical decisions and endure physical challenges that effectively catapulted her past young adulthood into a maturity realm that’s typically approached at midlife.
Cancer was one of the last things on the University of Findlay physical therapy student’s mind last fall during one of her daily workouts. But while lying on her stomach to do exercises, she felt a small mass that “just didn’t feel right.” She presumed it might be a cyst (a condition she had previously had), or possibly something more complicated, such as endometriosis.
Diagnostic tests, however, revealed Ludinich had ovarian cancer, a disease that ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women, but that usually affects those who are older; more than half of the 22,440 women diagnosed in the U.S. in 2017 were age 63 or older, according to the American Cancer Society.
“I ended up having surgery on the twelfth of December to take out what had now become a basketball-sized tumor,” said Ludinich.
September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and this Sept. 11 marked five months that the Frazeysburg, Ohio native has been cancer free. She has also reached impressive and admirable levels of academics, fitness and candor; to not resume her studies, health routines and upbeat attitude was unthinkable.
“There was No Movement”
Outgoing and friendly, Ludinich is the type of person who apologizes for not hugging someone she just met because she thinks she’s too sweaty from a workout. Known for always being on the move, she is grateful to be the one helping others instead of being the one who needs help. She loves talking about a younger New Riegle girl she assists via her physical therapy studies. She’s also quick to crack jokes about her ordeal, and is eager to start her anatomy studies in UF’s cadaver lab.
But Ludinich’s comeback is intertwined with inevitable, irrevocable changes that have created a new normal for her.
It was Nov. 18, 2016, the day after her loved ones had thrown her a surprise birthday party, when she was told about her cancer diagnosis. The disclosure came from her father; her parents had come to watch her boyfriend wrestle in the Findlay Open, and to give her the bad news they had themselves just learned. She was in the Koehler Fitness and Recreation Center, surrounded by about 300 wrestlers and a large crowd of supporters, “and everything stopped” for her. “There was no movement,” she said.
At The James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, she underwent 28 chemotherapy treatments; an excruciating injection of Nuelasta, which stimulates white blood cell growth in bone marrow; and two surgeries, the second causing an additional scare after a scan revealed another spot in her abdomen that worried her oncologist.
Certain moments are indelible – the first time she ever saw her father teary-eyed; telling her then-boyfriend in the Koehler Center after he competed; the palpable fear before the results of her second surgery that she might not survive; and the realization that she would not be able to have children, which she had wanted more than anything.
Another traumatic aspect of her treatment was losing her hair.
“I love my hair,” Ludinich said. “I had hair that stayed straight if I straightened it, it stayed curled if I curled it, and its natural state was beachy waves. How perfect is that?”
Her hair loss was not gradual. One morning after breakfast it simply began cascading off her scalp. “It was like water coming off my head; it just poured off,” she said. “Thank God my mom works from home. She was grabbing clumps from the air as they were falling out, and I was just sobbing.”
Ludinich invited a small group of friends, family and her hairdresser to witness her head shaving and take part by shaving their own heads if they wished. She did not want to have to “reveal” her baldness to them.
“I didn’t feel sick until I shaved my head,” Ludinich said. The hair loss was, for her, the most overt physical and symbolic manifestation of her illness. Being bald meant she then also looked like a cancer patient to others. For months, until her hair began to grow back this summer, she refused to touch her head with her hands or look at it in a mirror.
Life Moving Forward
Ludinich now has about two inches of hair. The growth is steady and the texture is similar to her hair prior to treatment, she said.
Another newer addition to her life is a coonhound boxer mix puppy, which is giving her emotional support, “a reason to get up in the morning,” and another soul to take care of besides herself.
Ludinich said the pain, fatigue and routines of cancer treatment were actually easier than contending with the aftermath. Fighting the disease came with its own set of standards and expectations that could be followed and contended with, she said. But she has had to find her own survival tools amidst continuing existential uncertainties. There will be office visits for years to come to test for recurrence.
“Being a survivor is way harder than being a patient,” Ludinich admitted. “When you don’t have cancer, anything could be happening. I get a cold, and I’m like, ‘hey, what’s that pain?’ Now I have to worry about my port. I have to worry about if I get a hernia from my surgeries. I have to worry about any long-term side effects from chemo. You get this whole whirlwind of things you have to consider before you can do something.”
“The cancer changed me. Sometimes I don’t feel I’m good enough. I’m too intimidating to people. It’s too much for some people to handle. It’s just all these emotions,” she continued. Some of her key relationships with people have dissolved.
Survivor’s guilt is also a factor. “Why did God let me survive and not others?” she said she wonders.
Ludinich has relied in part on UF’s Counseling Services for additional support and guidance.
But Ludinich maintained her experience has also provided her with tremendous positives. “I got my life put into perspective for me,” she said. Her already-close relationship with her family was strengthened. Also, she has learned more about her own physical and mental capacities, which are providing her with self-confidence and decision-making capabilities that she doesn’t think she would have otherwise gained so early in life.
“I know how strong I am. I know my body can go through anything now. I got so much more out of this than I got taken away from me,” she concluded.
The Silent Disease
Ovarian cancer is often referred to as “the silent disease” because of its vague symptoms which can be attributed to other health issues, or to nothing at all.
“Ovarian cancer symptoms are things like constipation, feeling full fast. Bloating. I mean, every woman experiences bloating at some point! They are things that you don’t necessarily go to the doctor for,” Ludinich explained. Her first symptom was an expanding stomach that seemed to keep getting bigger despite her additional efforts to tone up and slim down.
“I felt like my belly was getting bigger and bigger, but I wasn’t gaining weight. I just chalked it up to the fact that I was back in school, I was not eating on a very consistent schedule, and what I was eating was probably not the best,” she said. The first doctor she saw initially thought she might be pregnant.
According to the ACS, the most common symptoms include bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, trouble eating or feeling full quickly, and urinary symptoms such as urgency. But these symptoms “are more likely to be caused by other conditions,” the organization points out.
Ludinich’s cancer was caused by a germ cell tumor, which is curable. “The kind of cancer I had, it was just dumb luck. It wasn’t hereditary. I can’t pass it down. I didn’t get it from someone. There’s nothing in my life that caused it,” she said.
Because of her experience, Ludinich is supportive of awareness efforts. She participated in the UF’s Turn the Towns Teal campaign that takes place nationwide, and freely talks about what she has gone through to those who inquire.
“When people ask questions, you have to get into the details. And I want to be honest with someone. I mean, if they didn’t want to know, they wouldn’t have asked,” she surmised.
Ludinich also hopes that her story will help individuals be their own strong advocates, particularly regarding health matters that may make some squeamish to address.
“I want people, especially women, to not be afraid to stick up for their sexual health. So many people get skittish talking about ovaries and reproductive health and it shouldn’t have to be that way,” she said.
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