Ovarian Cancer: The Importance of Awareness
At age 44, Christine Sable had few worries about her cancer risk, especially since no one in her immediate or extended family had a history of cancer. This mother of two, wife, and full-time real estate professional was leading an active, healthy life. But then she received some shocking news that sent her and her family into a tailspin.
After a few months of minor, persisting symptoms—mild abdominal discomfort that she easily could have ignored—Christine made what she thought would be a routine visit to her doctor. Later that week, she learned she had advanced ovarian cancer, a bleak diagnosis from which more than half of women diagnosed at this stage ultimately do not recover.
During the following year, Christine endured major surgery and debilitating chemotherapy before finally enrolling in an ovarian cancer vaccine clinical trial led by CRI researcher Dr. Kunle Odunsi at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. The trial was part of the Cancer Vaccine Collaborative, a joint program between the Cancer Research Institute and the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research to develop therapeutic cancer vaccines.
Ten years later, Christine remains free of ovarian cancer. She is beating the odds, and believes her immune system is keeping her healthy. She is active in the ovarian cancer patient community, where she spreads awareness of the disease and shares her own treatment experiences. To Christine, being aware of your symptoms and assuming a responsibility for your health are crucial to getting yourself the best treatment and staying free from cancer.
CRI: When did you find out you had ovarian cancer?
Christine: It was May of 2003. I had noticed some minor symptoms over a period of about three months that didn’t really alarm me at first. They were typical things like bloating, a little bit of cramping, some urinary urgency, and feeling really full every time I ate. But they didn’t go away, so I visited my family practitioner. She was very astute and sent me in for tests right away. My diagnosis came as a complete shock to me since none of my relatives had ever been diagnosed with cancer. I went from walking into my doctor’s office on a Thursday, thinking very innocently that there was probably nothing wrong with me, to a week later having major abdominal surgery for advanced ovarian cancer.
CRI: What was going through cancer treatment like?
Christine: It was very scary and overwhelming at first. I had major surgery—the surgeon said my cancer had spread over my organs “like icing on a cake”—followed by about six months of chemotherapy, which was a pretty debilitating thing to go through. My doctor was able to get rid of most of the cancer, but because the risk of recurrence is very high—around 80 percent—I was offered more chemotherapy. I considered the options very carefully, and decided I just didn’t want to endure more chemo. During this whole process, the biggest lesson I learned was that I needed to assume more responsibility and awareness about my disease and my treatment, and that’s why I started looking for clinical trials.
CRI: How did you learn about the cancer vaccine trial at Roswell Park?
Christine: It was my husband who heard about Dr. Kunle Odunsi’s vaccine trial from a local news program. I applied for the trial soon after and learned I was eligible and became one of 18 women who enrolled in the trial. My treatment lasted for a year, during which I made about 25 trips to Buffalo, New York, which included consultation visits and vaccine immunizations.
CRI: How did treatment with a vaccine compare to chemotherapy?
Christine: It was so different from chemo. Instead of being hooked up to an i.v. for several hours and then suffering from nausea, fatigue, and watching my hair fall out, it was just a simple shot in the arm—15 shots in total. I had no side effects at all from the vaccine and it seemed to be working for me. I found the trial to be a really positive experience and I was absolutely thrilled with the results. I have not recurred to date, and I still stay in touch with Dr. Odunsi.
CRI: What’s your view of immunotherapy for cancer?
Christine: I feel really good about it. I like the idea of a treatment that works with your body and with your immune system rather than one that is very harsh like chemo. But I also want to make it clear that I’m not against chemotherapy. I don’t want women out there who are on chemotherapy to stop what they are doing. It’s probably going to be quite some time before immunotherapy becomes a leading treatment for cancer, but I am excited about the prospects.
CRI: How has ovarian cancer changed you? Do you have a different outlook on life?
Christine: Initially, it really grabbed me and made me realize that life isn’t guaranteed—no one lives forever. I certainly think I will never again take my health for granted. I wake up every day thankful that I’m in good health. Whenever I’m feeling particularly good, I remember what it was like to not feel so good and I realize how truly lucky and fortunate I am. Overall, I’ve just really come to appreciate all the little things in life. And I try not to sweat the small stuff—some things in life that upset us really aren’t such a big deal. I also realized that despite my burdens, there are people with bigger problems than me, and I need to be grateful for what I do have.
CRI: What role do support groups play in your recovery from ovarian cancer?
Christine: I belong to an online support group of ovarian cancer survivors that is under the umbrella of the Association of Cancer Online Resources (ACOR). It’s one of the better quality online discussion forums, because of the broad degree of participation and the guidelines those who post have to follow. I read the discussion board every day and respond to people about different questions. I share my experience of the vaccine trial, and urge others to consider participating in clinical trials. They’re very important, especially for diseases like ovarian cancer that have a very high mortality rate.
CRI: What advice would you or do you give to others confronting ovarian cancer?
Christine: For those who are new to ovarian cancer or want to learn more about the disease, I encourage them to acquaint themselves with the symptoms and the risk factors. Lists of symptoms can easily be found online. That information is key to survival: 90 percent of early stage ovarian cancer can be cured. Unfortunately, most cases of ovarian cancer are found too late when it’s very difficult to treat. It’s very important to notice and act upon the symptoms very early on, as opposed to waiting several months like I did.
For those who have ovarian cancer or are undergoing treatment, my advice is to do some of your own research, ask questions, and consider clinical trials. I have assisted women with finding clinical trials online—even though many people have Internet access these days, a lot of them are just too emotionally wrung out to do the research. I often search databases for them; pulling up research and good information is a skill that I seem to have. And I recommend joining a support group, both to give and receive information.
For those who are survivors or who are in remission, my advice is to help others who are going through cancer. Try to spread the word to others by supporting and advocating for someone else who may be afraid to ask questions, get a second opinion, or question anything about their diagnosis. Help them become actively involved in their healthcare, treatment, and determining their future. Maybe even accompany them to a medical appointment.
CRI: Do you have any plans for ovarian cancer awareness month?
Christine: I typically send out a personal email to my female friends to tell my story, remind them of the ovarian cancer symptoms, and encourage them to get familiar with the symptoms. I also tell them to treat September as a month to take care of themselves and to see a doctor if they haven’t done so in a few years. Chances are that they do not have ovarian cancer, but if there’s something else that’s been nagging them, this is the month to visit the doctor, have some conversations, and bring up anything that’s been bothering them. It is a healthy habit to get into, feeling comfortable with asking questions about our health and taking responsibility for our health.
Published September 15, 2009
Updated February 12, 2013