Robin Kingsbury spends the bulk of her time helping others. So when a swollen lymph node in her right groin began hurting in January 2017, it was hard to slow down and take notice.
With a blended family of five kids plus elderly in-laws to take care of, the busy newlywed runs a sewing business creating costumes for theater groups. On top of that, she volunteers at her children’s school and is active at church and her local food pantry.
Kingsbury had also been experiencing severe hot flashes, bloating, weight gain and irritability. These are symptoms of menopause, so the 48-year-old tried to ignore them.
It wasn’t until sitting at her sewing machine was so painful that Kingsbury decided to have the lymph node removed. The surgeon from a hospital near her home in Marshall, Michigan, said the mass was large and purple; they’d need to wait for biopsy results to learn more.
In November 2017, Kingsbury learned she had advanced ovarian cancer and was referred to Karen McLean, M.D., Ph.D., at the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center. McLean had already rerun the biopsy results and found that the swollen lymph node had been almost completely replaced by cancer.
Surgery was scheduled for three days before Christmas and included a hysterectomy while McLean removed as much cancer as possible from the patient’s abdominal cavity.
“Robin had the most common subtype of ovarian cancer called epithelial ovarian cancer,” McLean says. “Like most women, hers was advanced stage at the time of diagnosis. It is important for women to know the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer so it can be diagnosed as early as possible.”
Symptoms of ovarian cancer include bloating, pelvic pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly and frequent or urgent urinary symptoms, among others.
Coping with stage 4 cancer
Kingsbury was grateful to be released from the hospital after surgery in time to be with her family on Christmas morning. Her next phase of treatment — chemotherapy with the goal of cancer remission — began in January 2018.
About 70 percent of patients diagnosed with ovarian cancer will have a recurrence, McLean says.
From the start, Kingsbury never doubted she would beat the cancer.
Still, she had multiple side effects during treatment, including nausea, body aches and neuropathy.
She also experienced supraventricular tachycardia, a rapid heartbeat —which fortunately occurred during an appointment at the Rogel Cancer Center, allowing doctors to perform an EKG to quickly diagnose and resolve the problem.
Kingsbury made a conscious effort to stay positive throughout, abiding by three simple steps: feel it, deal with it, let it go.
“I wrote a poem three days before I started chemotherapy,” she recalls. “I had my head shaved two days before and donated my beautiful hair. I had a picture taken of me three weeks post-surgery, in my bikini with my new bald head and posted it on Facebook. Positivity always.”
The patient took her doctor’s orders very seriously, eating a healthy diet and adjusting her busy schedule to make room for rest and cancer treatment.
Open communication with the cancer care team is essential to a strong doctor-patient relationship, McLean says. This, in turn, helps patients feel comfortable sharing what they’re going through.
Kingsbury agrees: “Dr. McLean is very thorough. I love how she would listen to every question and concern I would have. She took the time. It made all the difference in the world.”
Kingsbury completed chemotherapy in May. When she received the results of her scans, McLean shared the good news: The cancer was in remission.
“I told her to tell me something I didn’t already know and that I’d see her in three months for my checkup,” Kingsbury says. “I knew I’d kick cancer’s butt.”
Ovarian cancer: early detection and research
Unlike mammograms for breast cancer and Pap tests for cervical cancer, ovarian cancer has no standard screening test. Its symptoms can be confused with other issues, such as menopause.
Ovarian cancer is the No. 1 cause of gynecological cancer deaths and the fifth-highest cause of cancer deaths in women. That’s why early detection is crucial to have the best chance of remission and cure.
Kingsbury has participated for decades in Relay for Life, a community fundraising event for the American Cancer Society. The event took on a new meaning this year when she walked in support of early detection for ovarian cancer.
“I’m going to fight for all the other women after me that will be blindsided by this terrible disease and diagnosis. There has to be a way to test early,” she says.
Meanwhile, ovarian cancer research continues.
“One of the exciting new advances in ovarian cancer is the use of PARP inhibitors to help keep the cancer away for longer after treatment for recurrent disease,” McLean says. “We are understanding more and more about the genetics of ovarian cancer.”
PARP inhibitors are a type of drug to keep cancer tumor cells from repairing their damaged DNA so they die.