Release Date: 9/9/2011
Nurse wins battle with ovarian cancer, 'the silent killer'
Cheryl Phillips, R.N., left, discusses a patient case with Jennifer Haar, R.N., at St. Anthony's Heart Specialty Center.
Cheryl Phillips, 47, remembers the clumps of hair falling into her breakfast food. She felt sick – and disgusted. She shut herself in the bathroom and cried for five minutes, then asked her dad to do “the honors” of shaving her head. It was 10 days after her first chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer.
“My dad and I made a joke of it,” Phillips said. “He sometimes works as an auctioneer, and we joked that he would auction off every strip of hair he shaved from my head.”
Phillips began wearing a variety of caps and hats at home on the weekends, and wigs, matched to her own hair color and style, to work. But some days, just for laughs, she surprised her co-workers by wearing some cheap wigs she purchased at a Halloween costume shop. “I wore a different one every day, and my co-workers got a kick out of it,” Phillips said. “One day, when I was wearing my ‘normal’ wig, a woman told me how pretty my hair was. I said, ‘When I’m done with it, you can have it!’ I had fun with it.”
“Having fun with it” was how Phillips weathered the past 15 months, which included extensive testing, surgery and months of chemotherapy. She used jokes to face down her fear and laughter to push back her pain.
Phillips, who lives in south St. Louis County, has been a registered nurse for 25 years, most of them with St. Anthony’s Medical Center. She currently works with St. Anthony’s Heart Specialty Associates. Phillips knew her odds weren’t good when she got the diagnosis in July 2010. Ovarian cancer is called the “silent killer” for its lack of recognizable symptoms until it’s too late.
“I had a full feeling in my lower left abdomen when I walked long distances, and my pants began getting tighter,” Phillips said. “Previously, I had had a couple of episodes where I had terrible pain in my abdomen; but it went away after a few minutes. I was going through a very stressful period in my life, and I figured it was due to that.
“That full feeling was what sent me to my primary care physician, who said it could be irritable bowel syndrome; but, just to be sure, she sent me to a gynecologist for an ultrasound. I watched the screen during the test, and I realized I couldn’t even see my left ovary – it was covered by a large mass.”
That mass turned out to be clear-cell ovarian cancer, a fast-growing strain that was identified through a CT scan and a CA125 blood test. She had surgery on July 29 – a total hysterectomy, removal of her ovaries and biopsies of her lymph nodes. Phillips was lucky – the cancer had not metastasized.
Surgery was followed by six rounds of chemotherapy, one every three weeks. Because of a family history of cancer – even through the family members weren’t diagnosed until they were in their 70s or older – Phillips’ doctor ordered blood tests to determine if she carried the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which predispose women to other types of cancer, including colon, breast and skin cancers. Phillips had the gene mutation. The news surprised her, but didn’t devastate her. In some ways, the battle with cancer had made her stronger.
“When the doctor first told me I had ovarian cancer, I cried a lot,” Phillips said. “It was hard for me to tell my parents, but they were such wonderful assets to me. I stayed with them during my chemotherapy; my mom sat with me through every treatment and my dad drove us there. They helped keep my spirits up throughout the whole ordeal. It brought us all closer to each other.”
Her co-workers, too, provided a great support system, Phillips said, particularly one physician and friend. “She was my ‘angel’ through my diagnosis and treatment. She knew what I had been through and I could confide in her. She even went shopping with me to find a wig that matched my hair, before I lost all of it,” Phillips said.
While Phillips will continue to be monitored regularly for any signs of cancer, she currently is cancer-free and feeling fine. She is, however, a woman on a mission – a mission to make all women aware that ovarian cancer is nearly symptomless, frequently misdiagnosed and cannot be detected with a pap smear.
“With breast cancer, you feel a lump; by the time you feel a mass in your abdomen, it is very large and deadly,” she said. “September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and I just want to remind women to be conscious of their bodies. If you have any symptoms (see below) at all, see your doctor right away. It could save your life.”
Ovarian Cancer Facts
- Ovarian cancer is the seventh most common cancer in women in the U.S., with more than 25,000 women newly diagnosed each year.
- It is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths in women.
- Fewer than one-third of ovarian cancers are detected before they have spread outside the ovaries.
- Only about 20 percent of women are diagnosed early, when the disease may be curable.
- There is no definitive screening test for ovarian cancer.
Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
- Pelvic or abdominal pain or sense of heaviness
- Abdominal pressure, fullness, swelling or bloating
- Increased abdominal girth
- Difficulty eating and feeling full quickly
- Unexplained low back pain
- Persistent lack of energy
- Vaginal bleeding
- Weight gain or loss
- Urgent or frequent need to urinate
- Increased gas, indigestion, nausea or vomiting
- Lack of appetite
Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer
- Over age 55
- Family history of ovarian cancer
- Family history of cancer of the breast, uterus, colon or rectum
- Personal history of cancer of the breast, uterus, colon or rectum
- Women who have never been pregnant
- Women who take estrogen alone (without progesterone) for 10 or more years
For information, please call our Health Access Line at 314-ANTHONY (268-4669) or 800-554-9550 or visit find a physician online.
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