Ovarian cancer survivor: How I’ve managed stage IV cancer for 10 years

After my first ovarian cancer recurrence in January 2009, I figured longevity was probably not in the cards for me. Because once stage III cancer returns, you’re automatically at stage IV. So, I was expecting to live maybe two or three more years.

Yet here I am, more than 10 years later. And that’s almost entirely due to MD Anderson.

As it turns out, you can sometimes live quite a while with stage IV ovarian cancer. I treat it just like any other chronic disease, such as diabetes or hypertension. Whenever some new issue crops up, my doctors and I deal with it. Otherwise, I just live my life.

My ovarian cancer diagnosis

I found out I had ovarian cancer when I was 63, during a routine physical. I didn’t realize I’d been showing any symptoms. But I was seeing a new primary care physician for the first time, and his initial exam was more thorough than my previous doctor’s.

My new doctor thought my stomach looked a little swollen and felt all around my abdomen. He asked if I’d had alternating diarrhea and constipation for several weeks. I had, but really hadn’t given it much thought.

The doctor ordered a CT scan. By the time I got home, my phone was already ringing. He said that the scan results were worrisome, and he wanted me to undergo more tests. When those results came back, I learned that I had stage III ovarian cancer.

My initial ovarian cancer treatment

Up until that moment, I thought I was in the best shape of my life. I’d been exercising daily and was down to a size six. But the scans showed I had tumors on both of my ovaries — one the size of a grapefruit and the other the size of an orange. Cancer was also growing along the outside of my colon.

I had two rounds of chemotherapy and a 12-hour surgery, in which the tumors, as well as my uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and part of my colon were removed.

After my second relapse in 2012, I came to MD Anderson.

Living with stage IV ovarian cancer

Since then, I’ve had five more relapses, six more rounds of chemotherapy and three more surgeries, including a very challenging one performed by Dr. Keith Fournier, in which he removed a part of my stomach and attached the remainder to my small intestine.

Dr. Pedro Ramirez has led my treatment at MD Anderson the whole way, and I trust him completely. He’s an expert in ovarian cancer and has a very patient, friendly personality. Together, we’ve been trying different combinations of chemotherapy for the past seven years. He says I’m one of his longest-surviving ovarian cancer patients.

My current ovarian cancer treatment

Today, I’m taking a PARP inhibitor called niraparib. It won’t cure my cancer, but it may keep me in remission longer. Niraparib’s availability is the result of years of pioneering research and clinical trials. MD Anderson had been researching it for maybe 10 or 12 years before it was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat patients with a BRCA genetic mutation in 2017.

I underwent genetic testing, but it turns out I’m not BRCA-positive, so there was only a 40% chance the drug would work for me. But I’ve been on niraparin now for seven months, and so far, so good. The tumor in my pelvis has only grown minutely. It’s been a wonderful respite.

Dealing with ovarian cancer treatment side effects

I’m lucky that so many chemotherapies have worked for me and that I’ve tolerated them well. But chemobrain is real, and my intellectual abilities were affected in some ways while I was on those drugs. I had some neuropathy, too, but both side effects cleared up after I finished chemotherapy.

The niraparib has given me high blood pressure, and I take an oral medication for that. I don’t have the same energy levels I used to, so I take a nap most every day. And because of the surgery to remove part of my colon, I lost some motility in my intestines, so every night I have to take a stimulant laxative. But I consider those side effects a small price to pay for my life.

I know that my cancer is not curable at this point, but I rest assured knowing that my MD Anderson care team will lovingly and expertly continue to support me. And who knows what new treatment might be around the corner? Maybe someday I will be cured.

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