As Barb White has learned, life’s other challenges don’t stop when
you’re diagnosed with cancer.
In February 2014, Barb — then age 50 — underwent a hysterectomy to
remove a large, suspicious cyst on her uterus. A blood test had
already prepared her for a strong likelihood of cancer, but it wasn’t
until the surgery that Nicole Fleming, M.D., was able to make a formal
diagnosis: stage IIB ovarian cancer.
“If I hadn’t had the cyst, I wouldn’t have ever found out that I had
anything,” Barb says.
Barb’s ovarian cancer treatment
Because Barb’s cancer had spread to her uterus, she needed to
undergo chemotherapy. Three weeks after her surgery, the
Lake Jackson, Texas, resident went to MD Anderson in Sugar
Land to begin the next phase of her treatment.
“When the first chemotherapy went in, my chest was burning
uncontrollably, and I passed out,” she says. “I was just totally
allergic to this chemotherapy.”
Barb’s care team immediately stabilized her, but her allergic
reaction meant she couldn’t enroll in a beta-blockers clinical trial in which she’d hoped to
participate. While she continued her Taxol-based chemo regimen, she
had to schedule each of her six rounds of chemotherapy three weeks apart.
Still, the chemotherapy took its toll on Barb, both physically and emotionally.
“By the end of March, I was losing my hair,” she recalls. “I grew up
believing that the way I looked on the outside impacted how people
perceived me, so having no hair was just totally humiliating to me.”
Dealing with ovarian cancer, stress and life’s challenges
During the second round of chemotherapy, Barb underwent genetic
testing so Dr. Fleming could understand the full scope of her and her
family’s cancer risk. Right before Easter, Barb learned that she had
the BRCA1 gene mutation, which significantly raises
a person’s chances of developing ovarian cancer and breast cancer. Fleming said Barb would need a
double mastectomy if she wanted to reduce her breast cancer risk.
“The whole room turned into a pinhole,” Barb recalls. “She didn’t
say the words, but it felt like she’d said to me, ‘Now you have breast cancer.’”
Help from a social work counselor
To add to her stress, Barb also was dealing with treatment-induced
menopause and trying to come to terms with the physical weakness that
got in the way of her normal activities. Fleming recommended that she
seek help from an MD Anderson social work counselor.
“When I was first diagnosed, they actually offered it to me, and I
thought, I’m not going to sit and talk to people about how bad this
is. I’ll be able to do this,” she says.
But this time, Barb took Fleming’s advice.
“The social work counselor actually helped me get on medication that
alleviated my hot flashes, eased my anxiety and helped me sleep,” she says.
Barb also found value in speaking with someone other than her
friends and family.
“She helped me by just listening. She validated a lot of my
feelings, and she gave me strategies to cope,” Barb says. “I wish that
I’d gone to see her sooner.”
Moving forward after ovarian cancer treatment
Barb finished chemotherapy in June 2014, and underwent a double
mastectomy that December.
“When I was done with my double mastectomy, joy just poured over me.
I felt I’d finally completed this. I felt like I could breathe, that I
could kind of move forward,” she says.
Barb credits God, as well her care team, husband, family, friends
and social work counselor with helping her get through it all. During
her treatment, she realized how important it is to have a strong
support system, especially when facing cancer.
“Surround yourself with people who love you. If they can’t walk with
you, don’t try to seek them out,” she says. “It’s a hard time, and
it’s OK to take it one day at a time.”
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