Living with Ovarian Cancer

Wife, mother, grandmother discovers benefits of palliative care

Dorothy Davis Story PhotoIn 2012, Dorothy Davis was 64, healthy and taking good care of herself. An unusual symptom led to several medical tests, and one week later, a hysterectomy at The University of Kansas Health System. The pathology report revealed what physicians had feared  ̶  stage IIIB ovarian cancer.

Dorothy’s journey over the next six years would be filled with many ups and downs, but today she’s still here thanks to “remarkable” care from her cancer team. Dorothy also credits a branch of medicine she knew very little about prior to her illness. It’s called palliative care.

Hit the cancer hard

With an ovarian cancer diagnosis, it’s important to get help from specialists at a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center like The University of Kansas Cancer Center. Once ovarian cancer reaches stage III or IV, it is seldom cured. But today, physicians are helping patients live longer and experience extended periods of complete remission.

Gynecologic oncologist Andrea Jewell, MD, explains the personalized treatment plan she developed with input from Dorothy. “Our goal throughout has been to fight the cancer aggressively while ensuring her quality of life,” she said.

Balancing those two goals can be tricky. Dorothy has received lifesaving care that includes advanced surgeries, the latest chemotherapy regimens and access to clinical trials. However, each of these disease-specific therapies has triggered side effects and some complications.

Lift the patient up

Dorothy Davis and Dr. Spoozak Talking

Lori A. Spoozak, MD, is a gynecologic oncologist who specializes in palliative care. She helps patients like Dorothy and their families cope with cancer and the challenges that arise from treatment.

“There is a misunderstanding that palliative care is only for patients at the end of life,” Dr. Spoozak said. “I have met with Dorothy many times during her journey with cancer. We offer aggressive symptom management no matter where patients are in their illness.”

Dorothy agrees. “Dr. Spoozak and her team are experts in managing symptoms. They want to make sure I’m not in pain. That I can eat. That I can sleep. That I have energy,” she said. “They explain what is happening to me and talk about what’s best for me. They put my mind at ease.”

The palliative care team also helps patients make decisions about their own care. They discuss the pros and cons of treatments and clinical trials. They talk about medicine, exercise, diet, anxiety and other concerns the patient may have.

For some patients, talking about cancer with family members can be challenging. Dorothy sought help from Dr. Spoozak. “She was able to calm my fears. Then I could pass that information and feeling on to my children,” said Dorothy. “It helped them get to a place where they can accept what is happening.”

Seek quality of life

Over the years, Dorothy’s cancer has gone into remission three times only to return. In 2017, a clinical trial for ovarian cancer opened at The University of Kansas Cancer Center. In it, researchers are testing an oral medication that has been successful against other cancers to see if it might be effective against ovarian cancer. After conferring with Dr. Jewell, Dorothy joined the clinical trial.

Thankfully, this immunotherapy drug doesn’t cause hair loss like many of her chemotherapy treatments did. But there are side effects, including nausea, diarrhea and fatigue. Dorothy is glad the palliative care team stands beside her every step of the way. “Dr. Spoozak helps me with medications, natural remedies and diet,” she said. “I recommend palliative care to anyone who is going through cancer treatment.”

Dorothy also relies on the support of her husband. “Without George, I don’t know what I would have done. He’s the best caregiver in the world,” she said.

Dr. Spoozak has developed many long-term relationships with ovarian cancer patients. “These women are living with their disease, not dying of their disease. Some may never be cured, but they’re going to work, enjoying their families, celebrating birthdays and holidays,” Dr. Spoozak said.

Palliative care helps patients understand that their focus can’t be all about a cure. It’s about how to live your life with cancer.

Dorothy smiles. “If I can be here longer, spend more time with my seven grandkids, I would love that,” she said. “But only if I can get out, be with them and do the things they like to do. Now more than ever, I care about the quality of life."

This individual participated in a clinical trial of an investigational treatment. Clinical trials are different from standard medical care. As with all research studies, clinical trial participant outcomes vary. Before participating in a clinical trial, it is important to discuss the risks and benefits with your healthcare provider.