May 02, 2023
Ovarian cancer survivor: Immunotherapy clinical trial saved my life
BY Karoline Strauss
On Feb. 6, 2020, I was diagnosed with stage IIIc ovarian cancer. The abruptness of it all was shocking. In an instant, I was snatched from the warm, comfortable life I’d been enjoying and dunked into the icy cold waters of a nightmare. I felt unable to breathe.
My family doctor, as well as the gynecologist who diagnosed me, seemed equally shocked. Few words were exchanged between us, but their faces spoke volumes. I was convinced there was little hope for me.
That’s why I’m so glad I went to MD Anderson. There, I not only found the immunotherapy clinical trial that ultimately saved my life. I also found an entire team of experts who took charge of my treatment and never gave up.
My ovarian cancer diagnosis
I’d thought I was perfectly healthy before my ovarian cancer diagnosis. I didn’t have any ovarian cancer symptoms – just a little pain while urinating. I chalked that up to a UTI and went to my regular doctor for some antibiotics.
But my doctor said it wasn’t a bladder infection. He sent me off for a CT scan. The next day, he called to tell me the results: I had a mass the size of my fist on my right ovary. Even worse, it looked like it was spreading. He suspected it was ovarian cancer. I needed to contact my gynecologist right away.
Why I chose MD Anderson for ovarian cancer treatment
At first, I was convinced that someone had made a mistake. Maybe someone had mixed up my scan with another patient’s.
Unfortunately, my gynecologist confirmed I had cancer. Then, she suggested I go to a nearby hospital system for treatment. That recommendation struck me as odd, considering I live only an hour away from the nation’s #1 cancer hospital. Why wouldn’t she send me straight there? I took that as another depressing sign that she felt there was no hope.
I went to MD Anderson anyway. I knew that people came from all over the world to be treated there. And, I’m convinced that decision is the reason I’m still alive today.
I found hope at MD Anderson
It turned out that MD Anderson had just opened up a brand new facility in The Woodlands, about 15 minutes away from where I live. During my first meeting there with gynecologic oncologist Dr. Lauren Cobb, I remember crying and feeling an overwhelming sense of doom.
But she and her team turned my entire perspective around within minutes. She hugged me and told me not to worry, that we were going to get through this together. They were all so calm and supportive.
Dr. Cobb’s approach to my disease changed everything. I left my appointment that day feeling full of hope. I was no longer alone.
My ovarian cancer treatment
I told Dr. Cobb that if she would be in charge of my disease, I would not attempt to become Dr. Search Engine. I would do my part by focusing only on my spiritual and emotional health. I would be optimistic and do everything asked of me — and I would not give up.
She said that the first part of my treatment would be an 8-hour debulking surgery, to remove as much of the disease as possible. Then I’d undergo multiple rounds of chemotherapy. Eventually, I would join two clinical trials, too. But none of those slowed the cancer down for very long.
Then, Dr. Cobb told me about a new clinical trial led by Dr. Shannon Westin. It was designed for patients with clear cell ovarian cancer; it combined a new immunotherapy drug called etigilimab with an older one called nivolumab.
I didn’t know much about immunotherapy at the time, but I loved the idea that it was my own body doing the work. It would get help from the drugs, of course, but all the heavy lifting would be done by my immune system.
What got me past the setbacks
Unfortunately, before I even got my second infusion, my body stopped cooperating. Lab tests showed that my cell counts were too low to continue treatment. I was so fatigued that I could barely walk from one appointment to the next. I felt overwhelmed, defeated and helpless.
But Dr. Shannon Westin and Dr. Amir Jazaeri would not give up. They talked me through all the setbacks, listened to me and gave me hope. They also put everything in motion to build me back up for the next infusion, including multiple blood transfusions and massive amounts of iron.
By this point, I was starting to think I wasn’t going to make it. I was so sick that I had to be hospitalized twice. I couldn’t walk to the bathroom or even get up by myself. I also couldn’t eat, and felt really uncomfortable, with a bloated belly full of tumors.
But my blood counts finally rebounded enough that I was able to continue the clinical trial. And, after the third immunotherapy infusion, I started feeling remarkably better. By the eighth infusion, I felt fantastic. Some of my tumors were gone, too, while others were visibly shrinking. I never had any side effects.
Living well with stage III ovarian cancer
I am 100% sure I’d be dead right now if I hadn’t gone to MD Anderson. The experimental treatment I got there saved my life. And, the level of care I experienced there is unmatched. I cannot imagine having a better or more personalized treatment anywhere else.
I’ll stay on this clinical trial for another year or so. If the drugs keep working, I hope to continue taking them, even after the trial ends.
But even if they stop working one day, I’m not worried. I know that my MD Anderson doctors always have something else up their sleeves. And their positive attitude helps me to stay positive. I won’t give up, since I know they’re not going to.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
I cannot imagine having a better or more personalized treatment anywhere else.