Creating a ‘sparkle of hope’ for women suffering from ovarian cancer
MADISON, Wis. — Hortense Momou is one of a kind. With a contagious smile and an air of optimism, she has the kind of personality that rubs off on those around her. Her kindness is genuine, evidenced by a lifelong goal to help others.
Her story begins in 1995, when, as a native of the Ivory Coast, Momou left the West African nation amid political turmoil with her husband and toddler.
After spending a short time in New York City and a decade in Fargo, North Dakota, she had another child and eventually made Madison her home. After dealing with a near-family tragedy in 2009, she decided that, someday, she’d like to become a nurse. Six years later, in her 40s, with two adult children, she gave it a go.
Cruising along with her goal in sight as a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Nursing, in the summer of 2015 Momou suddenly felt an uncomfortable feeling.
“I was taking a class, and I felt some pain on the side of my stomach, and it was radiating to my back,” she said.
A doctor gave her some antibiotics for a suspected urinary tract infection, and she was sent on her way.
Before the end of the summer, she was back. This time, she was in the emergency department asking doctors to look further.
“They did some tests. At the beginning they thought it was gallbladder,” Momou said. “But then they did imaging tests and found out I have cancer, ovarian cancer. They told me stage 4.”
Just like that, with no prior symptoms, Momou had to shift gears from that lifelong goal, to winning the battle of her life. Nursing school would have to wait, if only for awhile.
After a series of chemotherapy treatments and a surgery, Momou was back at it. With the help of UW Carbone Cancer Center gynecologic oncologist Dr. Ryan Spencer, she got back on track.
“I told him, ‘This is important to me, help me out, work with me, and we’ll do it,'” Momou said. “And he’s like, ‘I know, I understand, this is your goal, this is important to you, I’m going to work with you.'”
“She’d come into the office all throughout that time and say, ‘You know all I want Dr. Spencer? I just want to have enough energy to take my test,'” Spencer said, recalling his disbelief at the time. “I’m like ‘You’re still taking classes?’ And she’s like, ‘Oh yes, I have to graduate.'”
Momou’s cancer returned in January of 2017, but she was undaunted. Often, she would receive chemotherapy treatments in one arm and take an exam with the other.
“If you see even what she’s done after she’s had this diagnosis, it’s as much as people do when they’ve never had a cancer diagnosis. It’s just remarkable,” Spencer said.
Fellow nursing students would record lectures. Spencer would do what he could to help her focus on her goal, while at the same time working to get her healthy.
Less than three years after that diagnosis, Momou walked with her graduating class from the UW School of Nursing in May of 2018.
Standing there watching was the doctor who was with her every step of the way.
“Dr. Spencer was able to work with me and work with my goals,” Momou said. She said he gave her “the kind of treatment I wanted and respected what I wanted and, together, we reached that goal.”
Spencer had to leave his daughter’s birthday party to get to that special graduation, but it proved to be one of those experiences he wouldn’t soon forget.
“I remember meeting her family, taking pictures and, afterward, walking home, I called my wife and I said, ‘I don’t get a lot of chances to have experiences like that, and I’m really glad I did.'”
Now, Momou focuses on her future, while at the same time keeping up her treatment. On Monday, she had her first interview for a nursing job. Though the fight against ovarian cancer continues, it’s never a fight she’s afraid to take on.
“The key is to not give up,” Momou said. “No matter what you hear, don’t give up.”
And she has a team, ready to go to battle with her.
“Hortense could have two days, two weeks, two months, two years, 20 years, I don’t know,” Spencer said. “But she’s going to do special things with every moment she has. It’s just the kind of person she is.”
Momou will be honored among several fighters and survivors, at Saturday night’s Sparkle Of Hope benefit for the UW Carbone Cancer Center’s gynecologic oncology program. The event has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past decade to continue the fight against cancer.
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