At 30 years old, Christine began to experience a sharp pain in her right side (what would turn out to be ovarian cancer) during the winter of 2010. Expecting a snowstorm to make traveling difficult, Christine turned to a physician friend for advice. “My friend is an ER physician,” she says. “He said I needed to just go in to the [emergency room] to have it checked, because, with the impending snowstorm, we knew I might not be able to get out of the house for a while,” she explains. (Check out the 10 mistakes people make in the ER.)
Doctors thought Christine was suffering from appendicitis, but they did tests to rule out other possible causes of her symptoms. When the results revealed Christine had ovarian cancer, doctors were just as shocked as she was. “They really thought it was appendicitis, and they weren’t even thinking of cancer,” she says.
Christine was blindsided by the unexpected news—ovarian cancer doesn’t run in her family, and she was caring for her two daughters, ages one and two, at the time. “I was a stay-at-home mom, in the thick of motherhood—I was still nursing my youngest. They were still that young,” she recalls. Christine and her husband sought the advice of oncologists across the country, desperate to find the best treatment available. Christine underwent three rounds of a combination of chemotherapy treatment over a period of several months, recommended by her oncologist. “It was horrible, I lost all of my hair, and I was thrown into menopause after the surgery … removing my ovaries. On top of the awful side effects, I had two little ones at home to care for.” (Here are 10 common myths about ovarian cancer you need to ignore.)
A few months after treatment, during a follow-up appointment, Christine recalls hearing that the cancer was back. This time it was local. Her doctor decided to treat the tumor with surgery, followed by more chemo. During her post-op recovery appointment, the examiner felt the tumor regrowing, merely weeks after the surgery to remove it. “The doctor came in and told me, you’re resistant to chemo and your tumor is growing so quickly we can feel it. You need to get your affairs in order, because you have about one month left,” Christine recalls.
Christine says it was her husband that helped her find the resolve to fight once again. “My husband told me I had to fight—we had to try something else, and so we tried a second-line chemo, and did three rounds, which were successful.” Christine underwent another surgery once the tumors became small enough to remove. The surgery included the removal of her colon, along with any other areas in her pelvic region that were suspicious. “After the surgery we also did radiation, and the scans showed that I was cancer-free.” In remission, Christine said she still had continuous complications from the disease, including infections. “I was cancer-free which was great, but I was still in and out of the hospital with pain and complications very frequently,” she says.
Cancer returns in the liver
Then the cancer came back, Christine’s recalls, and her liver was in trouble. Christine would have to undergo yet another surgery, this time to remove the tumors. Despite the surgery, the cancer spread within the liver with new tumors forming. The procedure would be complex and risky. “The location of these new tumors was tricky—they had to cut through my vena cava to get to them—but they did it,” she recalls. “I was at the end of what I could handle,” she says.
Christine underwent a follow-up scan to monitor the cancer after the risky procedure. She soon learned the cancer was back—not only in the liver but also her lymph nodes. She says, “I was told to get my affairs in order, once again. But this time I wanted to fight. I think it was my mama bear instinct—but I just thought, ‘I’m not done here yet—I’ve got little kids to raise.'” (Here are 14 things OB-GYNs desperately wish you knew about ovarian cancer.)
A new line of defense: Targeted therapy
Armed with a new resolve to fight to be able to raise her daughters, Christine and her husband went to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America location in Philadelphia. There, they received the recommendation to have genomic testing done. This would identify the genetic makeup of Christine’s tumors and possibly offer a match to a targeted treatment. Her biopsies were sent to a lab, where they underwent a comprehensive testing process, which examined her tumor for 315 different genetic profiles.
The testing revealed a targeted therapy, or precision cancer treatment, that Christine’s cancer was likely to respond to. The treatment is an oral medication that Christine has taken daily for the past three years. Today, her scans show no detectable cancer. “I think the moment that sticks out to me the most, is when I had my first scan after beginning the targeted treatment,” she recalls. “I had a history of having bad scans with bad news, and after this scan, the doctors were over the moon and jumping up and down. The nurse said, ‘There’s nothing there!’ I just couldn’t believe it,” she says. (Targeted therapy can help the immune system destroy cancer cells, but it doesn’t work for everyone,. It can also have side effects, and sometimes the cancer can develop resistance to the treatment.)
Today, Christine is living with a new appreciation for the simple things in life. Her daughters, now eight and 10, have their mother at their side. Christine says, “Life is so different now. There’s a freedom in normalcy, and being able to do the normal things. It’s being able to do the dishes, and the simple things, and saying, ‘I’m able to be a part of this.’ I have a new appreciation for everything now.”
Christine wants others with cancer to know that there is hope. “I want others with cancer to know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to treatment. We have the ability now to pinpoint what each of us as individuals need,” she explains. “You are not a statistic, and you shouldn’t see yourself that way,” she adds.
(Next, read what doctors want you to know about cancer.)