Increasing Ovarian Cancer Awareness
Increasing Awareness of Ovarian Cancer
St. Luke's radiologic technologist Luz Brandon shares her story to shed light on a disease that often goes undetected.
Luz and daughter Gabriella
It's not clear what causes ovarian cancer. No standard screening test exists. Symptoms usually are not common to the disease and often mimic other, more common problems. Many women go undiagnosed early on, only to learn of their cancer once the disease has progressed.
This was true for Luz Brandon of Bethlehem who, at age 40, learned she had Stage III ovarian cancer in June 2012. Vibrant and seemingly healthy, she was stunned by the diagnosis. After a course of chemotherapy and surgery, Luz thankfully shows no evidence of disease and is back to work as a radiologic technologist. However, she now has set her sights on increasing awareness of the disease by telling her story.
The Diagnosis and the Journey to Follow
Luz always considered herself to be in good health. Her annual gynecology exam was part of her yearly routine. She always received a clean bill of health on her Pap smear. Then, in March 2012, she started a running program with her 13-year-old daughter Gabriella and developed a sharp pain that ran down the length of her left leg. She believed it to be sciatica, a condition she experienced the year before. This time was different though – the pain did not subside and now shot down to her ankle.
Working as a radiologic technologist at St. Luke's Orthopaedic Specialists in Allentown, Luz consulted with orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Steven Puccio who sent her for an MRI. “Instead of showing a pinched nerve, the test showed a mass on my pelvis,” says Luz. “It was the last thing I expected. Only a year before, a cousin on my mom's side was diagnosed with a lesion on her pelvis and, soon after, died of cancer. She was only 38. I also learned my maternal grandmother died of uterine cancer in her early 50s.”
Dr. Puccio sent Luz for an ultrasound right away. Luz's gynecologist then sent her for blood work, a test called CA 125. CA 125 is a protein found on the surface of ovarian cancer cells and some healthy tissue. Many women with ovarian cancer have abnormally high levels of CA 125 in their blood. Luz's blood work indicated an elevated level of CA 125. The ultrasound revealed a cyst on her ovary.
Luz was referred to gynecologic oncologist Dr. Nicholas Taylor and underwent a CT Scan. This test confirmed Luz had ovarian cancer and it had spread to multiple areas in her abdomen including her lymph nodes. The disease in her lymph nodes was so extensive that she needed several treatments of chemotherapy before surgery. She underwent 12 weeks of chemotherapy treatment that lasted through the summer.
“Every Friday I went to the Infusion Center at St. Luke's Cancer Center in Bethlehem. I was overwhelmed at first, but the nurses were so nice and having my daughter there made me stronger. Instead of hanging out with her friends, Gabriella stayed with me through chemotherapy to provide support. Treatment would last as long as eight hours every third week. A short day was 5 ½ hours. I became exhausted and weak, lost my hair and developed mild neuropathy in my feet. But every time my blood levels were checked, the CA 125 had dropped. This gave me hope and the drive I needed to continue with treatment.”
“Before the procedure, Dr. Taylor explained everything to me and my family, and told me he would do everything he could to make sure I could resume a normal life after surgery, and he kept his promise,” says Luz. “We took it day by day. Dr. Taylor was honest with me, and gave me the treatment I needed. I see him as saving me.”
Luz was scheduled for a radical hysterectomy with tumor debulking on September 18 to remove cancerous tissue that had spread to her diaphragm. She remained in the hospital for about a week after surgery. “My family and coworkers all gave me tremendous support and helped me stay positive,” says Luz. “My mother would be over every day to make meals for us. Everyone was there for me: I don't know if I could have done it myself.” She then received more chemotherapy after her surgery. Luz received encouraging news this past January, having had a CT Scan that showed no evidence of disease.
As Luz was learning of her strong family history of cancer, she also learned she had an inherited breast cancer gene mutation known to increase the risk of both ovarian cancer and breast cancer. She since has chosen to undergo an elective double mastectomy and breast reconstruction to prevent a breast cancer occurrence. She is scheduled to have this done in January 2014. Luz recently learned another maternal cousin tested positive for the gene mutation and since has undergone an elective hysterectomy to prevent a possible diagnosis of ovarian cancer later on. Her cousin also will have an elective mastectomy.
Luz is encouraged to know that in some families with a history of cancer, not everyone will develop cancer and there also are management options to help reduce risk. Luz's most pressing concern right now is the future health and well-being of her daughter. “Gabriella now knows our family history,” says Luz. “When she enters adulthood, she will need to talk with her doctor about managing her risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer.“
Luz encourages women to be proactive when it comes to their health and shares her story. “My mission now is to make women more aware of ovarian cancer by sharing my story,” says Luz. “Getting an annual Pap test is important, but it's also important to remember this screening is for cervical cancer and won’t provide clues about ovarian cancer. I encourage women to know their family history, understand their cancer risk and listen to their body, telling them, ‘If you sense something is wrong, talk to your doctor and get tested.’ If my message can help just one woman, then I'll know I've made a difference.”
Director, Media Relations