From OHC, Specialists in the Treatment of Adult Cancers and Blood Disorders
January 27, 2023
Discovering a suspicious lump can be worrisome, causing a sinking feeling in your stomach. At age 56, Debbie Brooks discovered a lump in her breast, setting in motion a journey with two cancer diagnoses and three relapses. Surrounded by a loving family and a dedicated OHC cancer care team, Debbie is persevering and extending support to fellow patients.
About five years ago, Debbie and her husband Michael were adjusting to Michael’s very recent retirement when Debbie decided to get a suspicious lump in her breast examined. Her primary care doctor ordered a mammogram, and the results were concerning. Her doctor referred her to a breast surgeon, who diagnosed her with inflammatory breast cancer. “The lump had been growing and the skin on my breast looked like that of an orange peel,” described Debbie. A biopsy and PET scan revealed that Debbie also had cancer in her lymph nodes and ovaries. The breast surgeon referred Debbie to OHC.
OHC gynecologic oncologist Ajit Gubbi, DO, confirmed a stage four ovarian cancer diagnosis and coordinated care and a treatment plan with his medical oncology colleagues for both breast and ovarian cancer. “I was surprised by the ovarian cancer diagnosis because I didn’t notice unusual symptoms,” said Debbie. “I have celiac disease, so belly pain is typical for me and I would not have connected the two conditions.”
“Because the symptoms of ovarian cancer can be vague, patients often pass them off as something more benign like IBS,” said Dr. Gubbi. “There’s no reliable screening test for ovarian cancer so we always recommend that if patients have persistent unusual symptoms for more than two weeks, they report them to their doctors. The earlier we discover cancer, the better the treatment outcomes.”
Debbie would begin chemotherapy prior to a debulking surgery to remove tumors from her abdomen, which would then be followed by additional chemotherapy. Coping with the side effects of chemotherapy posed a challenge, but this was a challenge she was determined to overcome. “I lost my hair, so my son, Matthew, and his friend completely shaved their heads so that I wouldn’t be the only one without hair,” said Debbie. “I have brain fog, but the most difficult side effects are fatigue and weakened immunity.” Compromised immunity coupled with the COVID pandemic has been a struggle. “My children are grown and out of the house, so I’m not able to see them as much as I’d like. My daughter, Lauren, lives in South Carolina and traveling was often out of the question.”
Debbie’s OHC care team followed her progress closely and scheduled regular imaging scans. “Fortunately, all of my mammograms and breast MRIs have been normal since I started chemotherapy,” said Debbie. Her journey with ovarian cancer has not been the same. “I’ve relapsed three times, but I couldn’t be in a better place for treatment. Dr. Gubbi is a brilliant surgeon and when I’m in the exam room I feel like I’m the only patient he has. He says we still have other treatment options we can use.”
Debbie also credits her husband’s support with pulling her through difficult times. Still, one wonders how she continues to fiercely approach her fight. “I’m Irish,” Debbie laughs, but then becomes more serious as she says, “I’m not a quitter. My parents were optimistic, so I’ve always had a positive outlook.” She has passed this positivity trait on to her daughter who often mentions this phrase to her mother: You have been assigned this mountain to show others it can be moved. Lauren has a tattoo that reads “move mountains” on her arm.
Debbie’s most recent scans on October 17th indicated that she had a pea-sized tumor in her abdomen—her third relapse. “After my prior relapses, I had a good attitude, but this one was hard because I had just finished chemo in March,” said Debbie. In November, Dr. Gubbi surgically removed the tumor. In collaboration with his OHC radiation oncology colleague, Joseph N. Shaughnessy, MD, Dr. Gubbi determined that the best plan for Debbie would be to resume chemotherapy as radiation would not be effective at this stage.
Debbie is taking it one day at a time. “I wake up and see every day as a blessing,” said Debbie. “Your outlook on life changes. I’m happy for what I have, and I try not to sweat the little things.”
Both Debbie and Michael want to share this perspective with other patients and caregivers. “When I see cancer patients in the waiting room, it breaks my heart,” said Debbie. “Mike and I want them to know that we’re here for them. We’re willing to talk to anyone who needs help or just wants to cry.”
Debbie plans to travel once she is in remission. “I want to see my family, and there’s so much in this country I haven’t seen. We also need to celebrate Mike’s retirement. I have cancer, but cancer doesn’t have me.”
Gynecologic cancers have warning signs. Refer to this helpful guide to symptoms of gynecologic cancers and report them to your doctor if they persist for more than two weeks. To learn more about gynecologic cancers or to request a second opinion with a member of OHC’s team of gynecologic cancer experts, call 1-888-649-4800 or visit ohcare.com.
Top picture: OHC patient Debbie Brooks (Santa suit) celebrated the holidays with her family, her daughter, Lauren (left), her son, Matthew (center), and her husband, Mike. Lauren’s dog, Porter, joined the party too.Comments (0)