Mary Taylor thought she was experiencing pelvic pain due to endometriosis in early 2015. She never suspected it was a symptom of vaginal cancer.
After weeks with no change, she decided to see her gynecologist, who noticed abnormalities in Mary’s vaginal wall and performed a biopsy. When Mary didn’t hear back for several weeks, she figured the test must have come back clear. Then, she received a call from her doctor: Mary had vaginal cancer. Her doctor had taken extra time and checked the biopsy results several times to be sure.
Mary was shocked. She immediately called her husband, Robert.
“My husband is like an angel in a crisis,” says Mary, a symphony violinist and violin teacher in Charleston, South Carolina. Wanting more information, they drove together to the gynecologist’s office.
Receiving a vaginal cancer diagnosis
When Robert and Mary arrived, her gynecologist said that she felt Mary was going to have a difficult time with cancer. Mary felt confused and upset.
Soon afterwards, she saw a local oncologist, who ordered an MRI. It only showed vaginal cancer. But the oncologist suspected that the cancer may have spread there from another origin. Additional tests came back clear, but the doctor recommended Mary undergo a capsule endoscopy, in which the patient swallows a pill-like capsule containing a wireless camera to take pictures of the digestive tract.
Getting a second opinion at MD Anderson
Mary instead decided to get a second opinion. A friend recommended MD Anderson.
“MD Anderson is one of the most amazing places that we’ve ever been,” says Mary. “It’s just like something from a heavenly realm.”
Mary had her first appointment in June 2015. Before they arrived, Mary and Robert prepared a letter for their new gynecologic oncologist stating they did not want to know what stage the cancer was, statistics on survival, or projected length of life with the diagnosis. Understanding that no one knew exactly what the outcome of Mary’s individual cancer treatment would be, they wanted to remain positive.
At MD Anderson, Mary had another biopsy, MRI, PET scan and chest X-ray. Using these scans, the pathology, radiology and clinical teams checked for signs of cancer in her lymph nodes, bones and throughout her body, but they found the cancer hadn’t spread and was confined to the vaginal wall. MD Anderson’s gynecologic oncology pathologists validated this conclusion, recognizing features of the cancer cells that they identified as primary vaginal cancer.
A three-part vaginal cancer treatment plan
At the end of June 2015, Mary began her treatment. She started with five weeks of intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) — a precise form of radiation delivered through an external beam — under the care of radiation oncologist Ann Klopp, M.D., followed by four rounds of chemotherapy with the drug cisplatin given through an IV infusion. Between these infusions, Mary experienced some nausea and had to force herself to eat — a common side effect of chemotherapy.
After radiation therapy and chemotherapy, Mary received interstitial brachytherapy implant treatment, which delivers radiation therapy with tiny pieces of radioactive material that are placed inside the patient’s body as close to the tumor as possible. This allows doctors to deliver very high doses of radiation directly to the patient’s tumor while limiting radiation exposure to healthy tissue.
The power of positivity
Long before her vaginal cancer diagnosis, Mary had begun meditating. She relied on mediation again to help her through the ups and downs of treatment.
“To me, meditation is just a different kind of prayer,” she says.
Mary also visited MD Anderson’s Integrative Medicine Center and looked at books on the relationship between the mind, body and spirit. “It was really interesting, and it was really helpful,” she says.
On July 31, 2015, Mary completed her treatment. She returned in November for a PET scan, which showed she had no evidence of disease.
Now, she returns to MD Anderson yearly for her checkups. When friends and family ask how she’s doing, she doesn’t say anything about the ups and downs of the past few years. She simply tells them, “I’m perfect.”
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