An ovarian cancer survivor
Diane Williams has faced many challenges in her life, but she’s faced each one, including cancer, with a positive attitude and determination.
In 2005, Diane went for her annual, routine mammogram. It was during that exam and a conversation with a technician that she learned her family history could put her at risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Diane was referred to a Carilion Clinic genetic counselor for an assessment. She did, in fact, test positive for a BRCA 1 gene mutation, which increases a woman’s risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Testing positive for this type of mutation doesn’t always mean a woman will develop cancer, but Diane decided to take an aggressive approach to her health.
"I was not going to be a victim," Diane said.
Diane went to see Dennis Scribner, M.D., a Carilion Clinic gynecologic oncologist. Dr. Scribner decided to do an ultrasound on Diane to see if there were any signs of ovarian cancer. The test was negative, but because of her family history, Dr. Scribner suggested Diane have her ovaries removed as a proactive step. She agreed, and decided to undergo laparoscopic surgery, a minimally invasive procedure that usually involves a shorter recovery period.
“As a patient, you have a huge responsibility," Diane said. "Be your own advocate. Yes, the doctor is the expert, but you can do your own research. Find out about the latest research and never be afraid to speak up or ask questions about your care. I decided from day one I was going to live."
Once in surgery, Dr. Scribner did find a tumor on Diane’s left ovary – which had not appeared on the initial ultrasound – and removed it. After testing, the tumor was deemed "Grade 3," which can be highly aggressive ovarian cancer. After further testing, she found out that the cancer hadn’t spread but she began three rounds of chemotherapy treatment.
Diane was in remission for three years. Despite feeling great, Diane still saw Dr. Scribner and his team at Carilion Clinic Gynecologic Oncology periodically for cancer-marker monitoring.
"The entire practice is so encouraging," Diane said. "It’s a happy environment, which you wouldn’t automatically expect. The office really functions as a team. We all work together on my treatment."
A cancer tumor often produces a specific protein in the blood that serves as a marker for the cancer. So, through a blood test physicians can use cancer markers to detect cancer activity in the body. Dr. Scribner says in a patient without cancer the markers should measure between zero and 35. He says a woman with ovarian cancer may have markers well over 100. Diane’s cancer markers started to rise in 2009.
"During this time I also felt bloated and was becoming increasingly fatigued," Diane said. "Dr. Scribner and his team always told me to listen to my body and thankfully, I did."
Fatigue and bloating were symptoms that cancer may have returned. And it had. After several more rounds of tests, a computed tomography (CT) scan confirmed the cancer had returned and spread to Diane’s abdomen.
In 2010, Dr. Scribner performed another surgery on Diane, removing all the visible cancer in her abdomen.
Diane was once again in remission. This time though, it only lasted six months. But Diane wasn’t discouraged.
"I never solely rely on what it says on paper," Diane said. "That doesn’t always matter. I’ve also chosen to be a survivor."
In the spring of 2011, Diane began feeling pain in her lower abdomen. A CT scan revealed that the cancer had likely returned so Dr. Scribner performed another surgery and prescribed another round of chemotherapy. Because it was less than a year since her last treatments, it was a different kind of chemotherapy.
"Dr. Scribner is very involved with research, which is great for patients," Diane said. "When some doctors have told me there is no hope, Dr. Scribner has always offered another option."
In January 2012, Diane underwent another surgery, this time with the da Vinci Surgical System, a minimally invasive advanced robotic surgical system. This surgery option allows surgeons to use instruments through controls that precisely mimic their hand movements.
"Without da Vinci, I wouldn’t have been able to undergo surgery again because of my scarred tissue," Diane said. "Traditional surgery just wouldn’t have been an option for Dr. Scribner to remove all of the cancer."
Fortunately, the cancer has never spread to Diane’s breasts or major organs. She has completed another three rounds of chemotherapy, and while she has had complications, she remains in remission at this time. She visits Dr. Scribner and the Carilion Clinic Gynecologic Oncology team every other month for continued cancer-marker monitoring.
"The truth is I’ve undergone several surgeries and several rounds of chemotherapy, but I’m in remission and I feel great,” Diane said. "I’ll never forget when Dr. Scribner looked at me and said he’d never give up on me. He hasn’t and I know he won’t."
Diane, now 52, has plans to retire and focus on her health. Besides changing her diet and exercise routine, Diane says she hopes to spend more time with her three adult sons, their families, and her husband. She’s beaten the odds as far as statistics go for ovarian cancer patients. It’s a challenge Diane says she was ready for and will continue to fight for the rest of her life.
"I’m not a cancer victim," Diane said. "I’m a survivor and I plan to stay that way."