During ovarian cancer treatment, patient learns to cope with stress
As Barb White has learned, life’s other challenges don’t stop when you’re diagnosed with cancer.
In February 2014, Barb -- then age 50 -- underwent a hysterectomy to remove a large, suspicious cyst on her uterus. A blood test had already prepared her for a strong likelihood of cancer, but it wasn’t until the surgery that Nicole Fleming, M.D., was able to make a formal diagnosis: stage IIB ovarian cancer.
“If I hadn’t had the cyst, I wouldn’t have ever found out that I had anything,” Barb says.
Barb’s ovarian cancer treatment
Because Barb’s cancer had spread to her uterus, she needed to undergo chemotherapy. Three weeks after her surgery, the Lake Jackson, Texas, resident went to MD Anderson in Sugar Land to begin the next phase of her treatment.
“When the first chemotherapy went in, my chest was burning uncontrollably, and I passed out,” she says. “I was just totally allergic to this chemotherapy.”
Barb’s care team immediately stabilized her, but her allergic reaction meant she couldn’t enroll in a beta-blockers clinical trial in which she’d hoped to participate. While she continued her Taxol-based chemo regimen, she had to schedule each of her six rounds of chemotherapy three weeks apart.
Still, the chemotherapy took its toll on Barb, both physically and emotionally.
“By the end of March, I was losing my hair,” she recalls. “I grew up believing that the way I looked on the outside impacted how people perceived me, so having no hair was just totally humiliating to me.”
Dealing with ovarian cancer, stress and life’s challenges
During the second round of chemotherapy, Barb underwent genetic testing so Dr. Fleming could understand the full scope of her and her family’s cancer risk. Right before Easter, Barb learned that she had the BRCA1 gene mutation, which significantly raises a person’s chances of developing ovarian cancer and breast cancer. Fleming said Barb would need a double mastectomy if she wanted to reduce her breast cancer risk.
“The whole room turned into a pinhole,” Barb recalls. “She didn’t say the words, but it felt like she’d said to me, ‘Now you have breast cancer.’”
Help from a social work counselor
To add to her stress, Barb also was dealing with treatment-induced menopause and trying to come to terms with the physical weakness that got in the way of her normal activities. Fleming recommended that she seek help from an MD Andersonsocial work counselor.
“When I was first diagnosed, they actually offered it to me, and I thought, I’m not going to sit and talk to people about how bad this is. I’ll be able to do this,” she says.
But this time, Barb took Fleming’s advice.
“The social work counselor actually helped me get on medication that alleviated my hot flashes, eased my anxiety and helped me sleep,” she says.
Barb also found value in speaking with someone other than her friends and family.
“She helped me by just listening. She validated a lot of my feelings, and she gave me strategies to cope,” Barb says. “I wish that I’d gone to see her sooner.”
Moving forward after ovarian cancer treatment
Barb finished chemotherapy in June 2014, and underwent a double mastectomy that December.
“When I was done with my double mastectomy, joy just poured over me. I felt I’d finally completed this. I felt like I could breathe, that I could kind of move forward,” she says.
Barb credits God, as well her care team, husband, family, friends and social work counselor with helping her get through it all. During her treatment, she realized how important it is to have a strong support system, especially when facing cancer.
“Surround yourself with people who love you. If they can’t walk with you, don’t try to seek them out,” she says. “It’s a hard time, and it’s OK to take it one day at a time.”