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Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer Survivor Overcomes the Odds

Ovarian cancer patient Debbie Michalski.

August 13, 2019

Debbie Michalski received her stage 4 ovarian cancer diagnosis when her youngest grandchild, Julia, was just a year old. Facing an uncertain future, Debbie hoped to live long enough that Julia would remember how much her grandmother loved her.

Today, Julia is 16 and Debbie is more than a survivor. She’s an inspiration to her fellow patients and care providers at The University of Kansas Cancer Center.

Comprehensive ovarian cancer treatment

Debbie tackled cancer with determination, buoyed by her husband’s optimism and confident in the care she received from gynecologic oncologist Julia Chapman, MD. Debbie, who was diagnosed at 47, was eager to learn as much as she could about treatment options. With Dr. Chapman’s first priority being to educate her patients, the two instantly connected.

“When I first met Dr. Chapman, she examined me and then took my husband into her office. When I walked in, she had her arms around my husband, consoling him,” Debbie recalls. “I thought to myself, she’s going to do all she can to save me."

Within a week, Debbie had surgery to remove her uterus, ovaries, spleen, appendix and a part of her colon and a section of her diaphragm. After surgery, she began chemotherapy and also took part in a clinical trial. Resolved to stay optimistic despite the poor prognosis that often accompanies a stage 4 diagnosis, Debbie embraced an integrated treatment approach.

“I asked Dr. Chapman if she had any patients with a similar diagnosis who were doing better than expected and, if so, what were they doing,” Debbie says. Dr. Chapman referred her to Jeanne Drisko, MD, former integrative medicine specialist. Debbie’s treatment program was expanded to include an intravenous vitamin C regimen and an organic diet.

Team approach to ovarian cancer care

Debbie says she appreciated Dr. Chapman for being receptive and proactive. Dr. Chapman collaborated with her fellow physicians to determine the best course of treatment for Debbie.

“We have a cadre of cancer specialists here at The University of Kansas Cancer Center and we coordinate so we’re able to take care of patients without unnecessary delays,” Dr. Chapman explains. Together, the team creates a plan for clinical treatment based on the most current data and latest technology.

In 2005, Debbie experienced a recurrence. While she considered seeking a second opinion elsewhere, she and her husband knew she was getting the best care possible at the cancer center.

“The University of Kansas Cancer Center worked hard to achieve its National Cancer Center designation (as 1 of 71 cancer centers in the nation supported by the National Cancer Institute). It’s a distinction that isn’t easy to earn or every hospital would have it. I don’t know why you would go anywhere else,” Debbie says.

Empathy matters

Surgery and another 6 rounds of chemotherapy returned Debbie to remission and she’s been healthy ever since. She continues to visit the cancer center for twice yearly checkups, and she’s actively involved in an ovarian cancer support group.

“Debbie is a cheerleader and advocate for all of my patients who’ve known her. I may not have scientific proof, but I can tell you patients with a positive outlook have a better life. Debbie is a classic example of that,” Dr. Chapman says.

Debbie attributes her outcome to the excellent care she received at the hands of Dr. Chapman and her colleagues.

“I think about how I would want to be treated if I were the patient; what questions I would have and what information I would want to know,” shares Dr. Chapman, who connects with her patients on whatever level is comfortable for them.

“Early in my career, I was advised to avoid getting too close, but being able to empathize with my patients makes a difference in their experience. And I believe it leads to a better outcome,” Dr. Chapman says.

An anniversary to remember

Upon hearing her diagnosis 15 years ago, Debbie said she looked at the statistics for stage 4 ovarian cancer and showed them to her husband.

“He said, ‘I think you’re looking at it all wrong. All you have to know is that someone has survived and believe you can be that person,’” Debbie recalls.

He was right. This summer, Debbie and Don celebrated their 25th anniversary. It was a milestone they didn’t expect to reach when they first visited Dr. Chapman’s office on their 10th wedding anniversary.

“Dr. Chapman asked how long we’d been married and my husband told her it was 10 years that day. Everyone in the room cried,” she says. “When you see that level of compassion, you know you’re in the right place.”

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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.

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