THE BIGGEST SHOCK OF MY LIFE
When the shock subsided enough so that I could think, I realized I needed help to figure out what to do next. I called one of my best friends, who happened to be an ER doctor and had connections at a well-known cancer research hospital. Together we found a surgeon, and within two weeks of my initial surgery, he performed a laparoscopic hysterectomy and an oophorectomy. He also did a procedure to determine the stage of the cancer. At that time, the cancer appeared to be contained to the remaining ovary, so he diagnosed me with stage I-C ovarian cancer.
Soon after that surgery, I went to see a gynecologic oncologist at a large, reputable medical center in Maryland. She recommended three cycles of chemotherapy, a standard approach for ovarian cancer, which I received at a local clinic.
The chemotherapy was hard on me, and I did my best to manage the side effects on my own with over-the-counter medication. I went through chemotherapy for a few months, and recovered from surgery. But by the following Christmas, I felt like something was wrong again.
Scans revealed the cancer was back, and a tumor had wrapped itself around my left ureter. The same surgeon who did the oophorectomy and hysterectomy now removed as much of the tumor as possible laparoscopically. He also put a stent in my left ureter to connect my bladder and kidney.
After this procedure, I saw another specialist at a different hospital, who could actually feel that the tumor had already grown back. I had a CT scan that confirmed this suspicion. Between the surgery and this appointment, the tumor had returned. That was a devastating shock and took all of us, including the physician, by surprise. This cancer was extremely aggressive. Because of how fast the tumor was growing, the doctors told me I probably only had a month to live. It was devastating news.
SEARCHING FOR HOPE
I wasn’t ready to quit fighting.
With my best friend’s help, we kept looking for hope. But I had to prepare myself and my family for the worst. It was heartbreaking. On one hand, I believe in heaven, but I wasn’t ready to leave my family. I was only 31 years old. My daughters were very young – only one and two years old at that point. My husband was just as heartbroken, but he was my rock through it all. He encouraged me to fight and keep looking for doctors who could offer some hope.
For his sake, and my children, I kept going, which was very hard, because I was trying to accept the news and come to terms with my mortality. But they wouldn’t let me give up.
I then underwent three cycles of chemotherapy with second-line medications. After the third cycle, I had a strong allergic reaction to one of the intravenous drugs, and my doctor stopped the treatment completely.
But that event triggered my doctor to order a new imaging scan, which showed that the cancer had almost completely disappeared. Whatever remained was tiny and could be removed with surgery, and I had yet another procedure in which several areas that appeared suspicious were removed. None of what was removed was confirmed as cancerous. The doctor was taken aback and kept preparing me for evidence of microscopic disease. But even the microscopic analysis showed no sign of cancer.
My doctor recommended four weeks of radiation therapy to make sure the cancer was killed. The side effects were again difficult, but the cancer responded.
THE ROLLER COASTER CONTINUES
But my fight wasn’t over. I tried to manage, but I still had a lot of pain with the stent in my bladder from an earlier surgery. It had to be replaced every month or two because of recurring infections. So I was still in and out of the hospital all the time. While all this was going on, I was taking care of my children and struggling to do more than just survive each day. People from my church helped as much as they could, but it was still very hard.
For a time, we were hopeful that the cancer was gone. Several CT scans examined by the radiologist showed no sign of cancer. But then on one visit he noticed a spot on my liver. The ovarian cancer had metastasized to my liver. I underwent surgery to remove the part of my liver housing the cancer.
It was devastating, again, but I couldn’t stop to feel sorry for myself. I went home to recover, but still had to go back to the hospital about once a month to have my bladder stent replaced. This went on for about a year. Eventually the urologist just removed the stent altogether.
While all of this was happening, I was still a wife and mother trying to live as normally as possible. My girls were pre-school age by this time, and I was trying to homeschool them. But I was still in constant pain.
Another follow-up scan soon revealed the cancer had returned in my liver. I had another surgery and then turned my focus to another phase of recovery. Once my energy returned, my husband and I took a trip to Spain, which was wonderful. But when we returned I knew, I just knew, that my next scan would show the cancer had recurred. I was correct: the cancer was now in my liver and lymph nodes.
THE TURNING POINT
At that point I discovered Cancer Treatment Centers of America®.
A friend recommended I call them, and after a long phone conversation with CTCA® I soon had an appointment at their hospital in Philadelphia. My doctor friend went with me, and we were both amazed at what we saw and heard there. I went there very skeptical, and by the end of the tour I was convinced this was the right place for me.
I knew it was the right place because it combined the best of both worlds – both compassionate, supportive care and top-notch doctors who could think outside the box and provide cutting-edge treatment.
Cancer Treatment Centers of America introduced me to the subject of genomic testing to determine exactly which drugs would be effective against the cancer. When I met Dr. Chura, he told me his goal was to get me into remission. He recommended chemotherapy with gemcitabine and bevacizumab, an investigative drug therapy that prior doctors had avoided because of the side effect risks. I stayed on these medications for nine months, a feat that was made possible in part due to the excellent supportive care I received at CTCA.
At no point did my doctors at CTCA treat me like my case was terminal. There was always hope. But they recognized it was advanced, and a very complex situation. Which is why the genomic testing was so important. They tested the DNA of my cancer and then targeted that DNA with customized drugs.
My team at CTCA prepared me for the possible side effects of chemotherapy and offered me supportive therapies to manage the nausea and other discomfort. I wasn’t alone, and everything was offered to me in-house.
A SUPPORTIVE ENVIRONMENT
I had a great team of people working with me at CTCA. They helped me so much. My nutritionist, naturopathic doctor and massage therapist did everything they could to make me comfortable and build up my strength and endurance. I could tell they all really cared about me.
I also had a chaplain on my care team. It was wonderful for Cancer Treatment Centers of America to provide not only physical support but also spiritual support. I took advantage of having a pastor close by who could understand what I was going through. I needed the encouragement of someone who knew exactly what to say to strengthen my faith and empathize with what I had experienced.
Coming to CTCA was a life-changing experience. I could tell my doctors and clinicians were personally invested in my well-being. I wasn’t just a patient. I was a real person, and they cared about me. When I was sad, they shared my sadness. And when I did well, they cheered me on.
A REASON TO HOPE
After the chemotherapy and then radiation, I began treatment with a drug that had been identified as appropriate for me through advanced genomic testing. The results of this analysis identified a potential therapy that would target the tumor’s genetic mutation. That testing led Dr. Chura to prescribe everolimus. Three months after beginning treatment with this medication, a follow-up scan showed no evidence of disease. And a few months later, the scan results were the same.
I still return to CTCA for check-ups, but it’s like traveling to a second home. I have hope now, and Cancer Treatment Centers of America helped me find it.
This has been a five-year journey so far. It isn’t over. But I feel like a completely different person. Instead of living in fear, I live with hope.