Christine was 30 years old when she began experiencing sharp pain in her right side 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 told Reader's Digest. "He said I needed to just go in to the ER to have it checked, because with the impending snow storm we knew I might not be able to get out of the house for a while," she explains. (Check out the 50 things ER docs want you to know about emergencies.)
Doctors at the emergency room assumed Christine was suffering from appendicitis, but took a biopsy to rule out other possible causes of her symptoms. When the pathology 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. Her oncologist recommended three rounds of a combination chemo treatment over a period of several months, which proved to be a grueling process for Christine. "It was horrible, I lost all of my hair, and I was thrown into menopause after the surgery in the ER 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 completing treatment, Christine learned during a follow-up appointment that her cancer had returned, but it was localized. Her doctor decided to treat the tumor with surgery, followed by more chemotherapy. 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.
Ready to give up after hearing the devastating news, 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." Once the tumors were small enough to remove surgically, Christine underwent another surgery in which parts of her colon were removed, along with any other areas in her pelvic region deemed suspicious. "After the surgery we also did radiation, and the scans showed that I was cancer free." Though she was in remission, Christine continued to experience 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.
Two years after her original diagnosis, and several rounds of standard chemotherapy treatment, Christine and her family received the news that they had been dreading. The cancer was back, this time in her liver. Because the cancer was localized, doctors opted to treat with surgery once again, and part of Christine's liver was removed. When a subsequent scan showed the cancer had continued to spread within the liver despite the surgery, doctors were hesitant to surgically remove the newly developed tumors as it would be a complex and risky procedure. "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.
Unbelieveably, during another follow up scan to monitor Christine's cancer after her complicated operation, she again received devastating news: The cancer was back—and, worse, 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.)
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, which would identify the genetic makeup of Christine's tumors and possibly offer a match to a targeted treatment. Her biopsies were sent to the Foundation Medicine lab, where they underwent a comprehensive testing process, called Foundation One, 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, and 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.
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 battling cancer to know that there is always 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. September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness month, here's what doctors want you to know about cancer.