You may remember ovarian cancer survivor Diem Brown from her stints on MTV’s The Challenge: Fresh Meat (formerly Real World/Road Rules Challenge), The Challenge: The Duel, and The Challenge: Battle Of The Exes. She’s a nice girl in the body of a badass: kicking butt and taking names on TV, and serving as a vocal advocate for cancer patients offscreen. Diem was originally diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was 23. Now, six years later, she’s fighting it for the second time.
I’ve been following Diem’s second battle with cancer (which she chronicles honestly and humorously on her People.com blog), so I asked her to share her story with Blisstree. I talked to Diem about freezing her eggs, whipping her (falling out) hair back and forth, and how she’s finally learned to own her role as that “cancer girl.”
You participated in your first MTV show just a month after being treated for ovarian cancer, when you were 23 years old. What was that like?
I didn’t want any of the contestants to know I had cancer. I wanted to feel like a healthy normal girl again. Before I left for the show, I did my first chemo treatment and I slept the whole entire way from LAX to Australia. And everyone was like “How did she get cast? She’s so boring, all she does is sleep!” But I really fought against the result of the chemo…if I felt tired, I’d go run a mile. I didn’t just want to lay down and feel it, I wanted to pretend like I was healthy.
But a lot has changed since then. I think because I was so young when I was first diagnosed I didn’t think of it as a life or death thing, I thought of it as “Oh you know, this is annoying. I’m going to lose my hair.” I never thought of it as “Oh shit, I could die.” Now going into it this time, I’m definitely looking at it with a whole new pair of eyes.
What was your reaction when you found out your ovarian cancer had recurred after six years?
I was with my friend and I just had the (exploratory) surgery and I got a call from my doctor, who told me I had cancer again. He said I needed to be more serious with this one. Hearing him talk about survival and death made it really real. I felt like I was getting hit over and over and over in the face. At first, when you hear the news you kind of get numbed out, but then the second I put down the phone, it was done. I was a bawling mess.
I love your People.com blog posts about your experience with ovarian cancer the second time; you’re so honest and somehow so positive, too! How do you keep a positive attitude in the face of another serious diagnosis?
When you’re faced with something bad, you’ve got to find the humor. When I’m writing the People blog, I make a joke about whipping my hair back and forth and having all my hair fall out, and some people are offended. This is the only way I can think of to make light of it. People get offended, but I do understand it’s a serious situation. This is not my first rodeo. And I don’t discount other people’s experiences. Every single person that’s going through cancer or disease or grief or death is having a unique experience.
You’re only 29. How did you make the decision to send your body into medical menopause and freeze your eggs?
I had to freeze my eggs if I wanted any sort of hope for a biological child. My fertility doctor made an amazing point that really struck home with me; she told a story about how a colleague of hers who was going through cancer said that thinking of her frozen embryos were the light in her dark cancer tunnel. And I wanted to have that hope and that light.
I’m one of the first ever ovarian cancer patients to actually get fertility treatments. So the information isn’t really in front of me as to what’s going to happen with me.. But as a woman, you know your gut, and my gut said “You’ve gotta do this.” And I was glad to do it, because I think egg freezing is going to be as revolutionary as birth control. It’s finding a way to stop the biological clock.
I didn’t really have a choice whether or not to remove my ovary, per se, but freezing my eggs was a choice I could make. It’s so final when they remove the last ovary. In terms of menopause, everyone always jokes about “the big change.” I haven’t felt a lot of the effects yet; I have had hot flashes here and there but nothing severe. You want to feel your age, so it sucks that I’m so young and in menopause. What am I supposed to say? Like, ”Hey, My name is Diem, I’m in menopause!” But really, it’s a stigma about women that I want to help alleviate by being open about it.
What advice do you have for young women in a similar situation to yours?
I think every single woman, at their yearly checkup, should get an internal ultrasound. Because there’s really no tests for ovarian cancer, and an ultrasound can also show you if you have scar tissue and other problems. It’s a big glimpse into your reproductive system. It’s simple and it’s quick. I wish we would push that more in healthcare. It can really take away your worries.
Also, I want to urge people to really advocate for themselves. I’m trying to be a part of my treatment WITH my doctor. Unless you ask them questions or bring up a suggestion, they’ll just do their standard of care. But if you come to them with questions or bring them information you’ve looked up, it can make a difference. I want to be able to get as educated as I possibly can about my cancer so I can be a big part of my treatment process.
I’m trying to write down every thing single I think sucks about the system. I live in New York now and I used to live in LA, and I had to go back to LA and got all my medical records, stuff like that. It’s all just so overwhelming for the patient. I want to be a patient advocate so bad, and I really want to help fix the system.
Can you tell me a little bit about Med Gift, the company you started?
When I had ovarian cancer the first time, I kept hearing this phrase over and over “What can I do?” “How can I help?” We’re programmed to say, “Oh, I’m fine, I’m fine.” You’re not fine, and you need help. I realized that every other part of life, we celebrate. We celebrate with baby showers and with weddings. When someone gets sick, we don’t celebrate their fight. And that fight might take a year. So over the course of fighting a disease, a patient can feel very isolated and alone. It’s not that the friends and family don’t care, it’s that they don’t understand how to help and they don’t know where the boundaries are.
So, I figured by creating a patient gift registry that I would put the power in the hands of the patient. With MedGift, the patient or a caregiver can list what someone needs, like a wheelchair or a monetary gift. But it doesn’t have to be material things, you can also list things like “Can you watch my dog while I’m at treatment?” It started with just cancer patients but now there’s car accident victims, Alzheimer’s, diabetes…any patients that need help during their struggle. Friends and family can go on to MedGift and select what they want to do to help a person.
What’s next for you?
Well, I’m on MedGift right now myself and I’m learning a lot more about what patients need. I’d like to make myself a case study and make MedGift even better. I’m also in the process of writing a book, which I’m really excited about. I didn’t want to write a cancer book, I was like ‘Yuck, I wouldn’t read that. It’s boring!” So right now, I’m trying to find ways that my book can be self-help for both patients and for other people, how to deal with grieving and things like that.
Also, I just bought a juicer today! I have not been treating my body well, and I realized that. I’ve been going out, I’ve been eating like crap, so I’m like “I need to change.” I went to Trader Joe’s and I bought kale! I just got anything that was green, anything I thought tasted gross. I think it will help, and I’m just trying to eliminate some stuff from my diet and be more proactive with it.
Anything else you’d like Blisstree readers to know about your experience?
When I first got on MTV, I’d go places and people would be like “Oh, you’re that cancer girl,” and I’d reluctantly say “Yeah.” But now, honestly, I’m like “Yeah, I am!” I don’t find a stigma to it now, when before I definitely did. If I am that cancer girl, than awesome! I’m proud to represent the face of cancer that isn’t always older people and to show that it affects young people too.
This is the cheesiest thing ever, but I do believe everything in your life happens for a reason. If you have that mentality, it gives you a better perspective and it makes life way less stressful.
Photo 1: Michael Carpenter/WENN.com, Photo 2: WENN.com