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The following is the personal story of ovarian cancer survivor Nora McMahon. Nora is involved with Our Way Forward: Stories that Illuminate the Ovarian Cancer Experience. It was put forward by TESARO, an oncology-focused biopharmaceutical company, and The Moth, an organization that promotes the art and craft of storytelling, to honor and celebrate the diversity and commonality of human experience.

Nora with Kevin and her parents, Cathy and Kevin McMahon. In her story, Nora shared how she learned grit and perseverance from her father. She credited his influence with helping her through her experience with ovarian cancer. This was the first time Kevin heard Nora’s story. He was celebrating his 86th birthday the evening of the event

By Nora McMahon


I grew up in a large Irish family. My father is one of 11 children, raised during the depression era in West Philadelphia. My father’s own life experiences dictated that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. His raised me with the same grit and determination that was passed on to him. These became tools that I could use to face any challenge that came my way in life.

Those tools were put to the test for me on March 17–St. Paddy’s Day–2015, when I was wheeled into an operating room for major abdominal surgery and was officially diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I was 39 years old.

For a few months leading up to my diagnosis, I had known something was off about my body. I constantly felt bloated, I was constipated, I lost my appetite, and I was exhausted all of the time. Thankfully, I had access to incredible doctors who took my symptoms seriously and guided me to a gynecologic oncologist who suspected that I had ovarian cancer. He scheduled me for surgery right away.

When I woke up from my surgery, I was in pain, depressed, angry and completely overwhelmed. I felt betrayed by my body. Looking in the mirror frightened me. I had been sawed apart at the abdomen and stapled back together. I didn’t want to take the literal and figurative first steps on my very long road to recovery and healing. I wanted to throw in the towel before I even got into the ring.

I thought a lot about my dad when I woke up from surgery. I thought about how he would have insisted that I dig deep and muster the grit to get back up and get started on my recovery. I carried my dad’s life lessons through those first steps toward recovery, as well as through months of brutal, aggressive chemo.

I shared my cancer story on stage a few days ago, during ovarian cancer awareness month, here in Philadelphia. It is through our stories–by listening to them and by telling them–that we get to set our narratives and take back our power.


Women with ovarian cancer need the proper tools and resources in order to take their own steps on the path towards healing. We need support from our families and communities. We need awareness of symptoms, research funding and information. We need access to care teams who listen to us and guide us to the best resources available.


I am lucky to have a father who taught me to grow grit by getting back up after each fall. But I am equally lucky to have had access to the support I needed through each step of my cancer experience, including opportunities to give voice to my experience through tell my own story.

I encourage all women to learn the pernicious symptoms of this disease. Navigating an ovarian cancer diagnosis is certainly tough, but knowledge is power, as is having a supportive community who understands the nuances of life with cancer. I encourage everyone–patients, health care providers, and care partners–to go to www.ourwayforward.com to access videos and guides that can help address the unique conversations and emotions that are associated with ovarian cancer diagnoses, treatments and recurrences. Plus, you get to read and watch some of amazing stories of grit and resilience.


Nora is an ovarian cancer survivor and co-founder of Cancer Grad, an online story sharing site dedicated to redefining the cancer narrative and providing patients with a global support system. She is also a former semi-professional dancer, basketball player, snowboarder, distance runner, weight lifter, cyclist and capoeirista. Nora was raised in Philadelphia and enjoys good coffee, street art, photography, music, dogs, travel and food.


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Special thanks to Edie Elkinson, Chandler Chicco Agency—a Syneos Health company