When Judith Buelow was going through rigorous treatment for stage III ovarian cancer, neither she nor her gynecologic oncology nurse, Fran Zandstra, could have predicted launching MD Anderson’s Cancer Survivorship Program together some 20 years later.
Buelow is MD Anderson’s first enrollee in the program, which formally started three years ago with the opening of clinics to serve survivors of gynecologic, genitourinary and thyroid cancers. This summer, Buelow will have her third consultation in a clinic established by Zandstra, director of the Cancer Survivorship Program, and a large team representing the clinics, Clinical Nutrition, Social Work, Clinical Cancer Prevention, Integrative Medicine and other areas.
The Gynecologic Oncology Survivorship Clinic — now one of seven survivorship clinics — is located within the clinic that Buelow got to know well during her treatment and follow-up with her gynecologic oncologist, David Gershenson, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Gynecologic Oncology.
Every year, she returns to familiar surroundings, people and atmosphere but instead of discussing her latest CTs or laboratory results, Buelow and Advanced Practice Nurse Terri Wheeler, who works in the Gynecologic Oncology Survivorship Clinic, talk about a wide range of topics that might include nutrition and sun protection. They talk about Buelow’s health, not so much her cancer.
“It was very difficult to make the break from seeing Dr. Gershenson every year and transitioning to the survivorship clinic, but I knew there were so many women who really needed him,” Buelow says. “The clinic gives me my peace of mind and reconnects me to the people whom I treasured during my cancer experience, but I walk out the door knowing that I am healthy.”
While she sits in the Gynecologic Oncology waiting area, Buelow may take the time to talk to women who are under treatment and offer words of encouragement.
If asked, she may tell them about how she got through 12 months of chemotherapy and the post-surgery complications. But she’ll also proudly tell them that her diagnosis of advanced ovarian cancer was 21 years ago and that she resumed her life as a wife, mother of two sons, exercise fanatic, English teacher at Houston Independent School District’s High School for Law Enforcement and took on a new role as cancer survivor.
“I get goose bumps and well up with tears when someone calls me a cancer survivor,” the Indiana native says. “I think of my mother who had a wonderful adage: ‘The healthy wear a halo that only the sick can see.’ When I walk into the survivorship clinic every year, I know my halo is back.”