By Dr. Bebi Samantha Bacchus
My stage IIIC ovarian cancer diagnosis in June of last year took me by surprise, as it would most people. At this stage, the cancer is in one or both ovaries or fallopian tubes and deposits of cancer larger than two centimeters may have spread into the abdomen. I had been struggling with gynecologic disorders for years and had begun experiencing pelvic pain and a decrease in appetite. Still, with no history of breast or ovarian cancer in my family, I had no expectation of a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
As a pediatrician of 21 years, parents have come to me with questions about the health of their children, from the routine to the serious. I welcome their quest for answers because an informed patient is an empowered patient. I took this experience with me as I embarked on my own treatment plan. Armed with the recommendation from my geneticist and the support of my family, I decided to put an end to the nagging suspicion that the gynecologic health problems my sister, niece, first cousins and I had experienced over the years were due to more than just “bad luck.” I decided to follow the new guidelines for those diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which recommend genetic testing regardless of family history. This resulted in learning that I have a BRCA (BReast CAncer) gene mutation, which is not only important for my family to know, but also key in guiding treatment decisions.
I strongly believe the more you know about this disease, the more control you have as a patient and the better you are able to handle it. I am also certain that my experience attending the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance (OCNA) National Conference in July and Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered (FORCE)’s Joining FORCEs Against Hereditary Cancer conference in June, as well as being a member of the BRCA Sisterhood Facebook group have better positioned me to live well with this disease. Hearing the stories of amazing women – some of whom have been living with ovarian cancer for 20 years – gives me hope and makes me feel that I belong to a group of strong and courageous women.
I am so grateful to my treatment team for how quickly they worked together to arrange my consultations, staging and surgery. I underwent treatment, had a hysterectomy and am currently in remission. The doctors tell me I am disease-free and that I should come back every three months, but any ache or pain makes me wonder whether this will be the day that I relapse. Over the past year I have learned how different your life becomes after being diagnosed. I started looking back at my medical practice, and realized that I, as a physician, may not always realize the impact my words have on other patients (and their parents). I think it has made me more empathetic – or sympathetic – to patients and what they experience.
While a diagnosis with ovarian cancer can be horrible and cause a great deal of emotional and physical pain, I realized it has also given me an opportunity to live a better life. My life has become richer and fuller because of the women I have met, the growing appreciation I have for my family, and the realization that my friends care deeply about me. It is important that we realize we are important, that we slow down and take some time for ourselves to heal.
Dr. Bebi Samantha Bacchus is a pediatrician residing in Glendale, Pennsylvania. She was diagnosed with stage IIIC ovarian cancer in 2014.