1/25/19

Ovarian cancer survivor advises ‘Get a team and get to work’

Meet Lily, an 8-pound mass growing inside Debbie Ochs of rural Cissna Park, until Georgina Cheng, MD, PhD, removed it.

“The doctor told me it felt like I was five months pregnant,” Ochs, 73, said. “Well, I knew it wasn’t possible, but ‘she’ deserved a name, attached to me and all.”

On a trip to Europe, Ochs developed a dry cough. Then she experienced minor bleeding. The slow-growing tumor was pushing on her stomach and lungs, making it difficult for her to breathe. She took action.

Her primary care doctor took a CT scan and discovered Lily before referring Ochs to Carle Cancer Center.

Carle treats about 560 patients a year with gynecological cancers within a 100-mile radius from Champaign-Urbana. These cancers include cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar.

Ochs faced two cancers – uterine and ovarian simultaneously.

“If you’re past menopause age (around 51 in the United States) and have bleeding, you need to get checked out right away,” Dr. Cheng said. “Ovarian cancers symptoms – bloating, abdominal pain – are often overlooked or mistaken so a diagnosis isn’t made until it’s advanced.”

Dr. Cheng said all women are at risk for these cancers, and their risk increases as they age but when found early, treatment is effective. Treatment for gynecologic cancers can include a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.  

“Not all of these gynecologic cancers are preventable, but when caught early they have a high survival rate,” said Dr. Cheng. “Cervical cancer however, is preventable through regular pap smears and physical exams or by receiving the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine.”

The vaccine is most effective if given at age 11 or 12 up to age 26, as a series of shots. Recently, the FDA approved the vaccine for men and women from 27 to 45 years of age. Check with your insurance provider to determine your coverage. Women are at risk for cervical cancers, but HPV can cause some serious cancers in men too.

Ochs credits prayer, her Carle team and diligence for saving her life.

“I thought it was menopause, I didn’t expect this. I got checked as soon as possible,” Ochs said. “When you hear ‘cancer,’ your mind goes blank. I didn’t even hear the doctor,” she said.

Her daughter, Sarah Bond did.

“She was with me every step of the way. We got smart, met our excellent team and got to work. I said, ‘Let’s get it out of there,’” Ochs said.

Surgery for Ochs was risky. Weakened by an earlier illness, she remained opened minded and followed her care team’s advice.

“It’s not just one doctor making a decision – there’s a whole committee reviewing my case. All of those brilliant minds together and specialized in care they provide,” she said.

Carle’s gynecologic cancer surgeon, Dr. Cheng is fellowship-trained, providing the most specialized care for patients.

“At Carle, our highly specialized team approach to cancer care means we accept the region’s most complex cases. We don't just treat a disease – we care for the whole patient, offering support groups, genetic and nutrition counseling to help patients through the entire process,” said Dr. Cheng.“Our team works closely with radiation and medical oncologists together to create a tailored approach for each patient.”

Following surgery, Ochs faced rounds of chemotherapy at Carle Cancer Center and lost her hair. Then she met “angels” in the infusion suite.

“You don’t realize how cold your head gets until your hair is gone,” she said.

Infusion room nurses referred her to Carle Medical Supply to receive a free wig provided by Carle Center for Philanthropy.

“It gave me confidence and I like it,” she said. “It was easy to care for and everyone thought it was natural.”

Those extra resources and generosity helped her through.

“Every turn there’s something to make the experience better – hand-knitted hats, puzzles, books or game, and a warm smile and friendly conversation from other patients facing the same journey,” Ochs said.

“Without a doubt, Carle was the best place for me to take this life-changing road. I’m blessed with such an amazing team.”