4-year survivor celebrates Ovarian Cancer Month

Robin Plum thankful for help she got at Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

For four-year cancer survivor Robin Plum, her pathway to treatment seems almost destined.

Sitting in the office of Dr. Justin Chura, who performed her life-saving surgery, she remembered seeing a commercial for Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Philadelphia before she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. September is Ovarian Cancer Month.

“I always told [my husband] that if I ever got sick, this is where I wanted to go,” she said.

Not long ago, it was thought that those diagnosed with ovarian cancer would not have long to live. Advances in ovarian cancer treatment have made vast progress within the last decade.

“Even within my own career, the shift has gone to removing all visible cancer we can see, so we tend to perform a lot more radical and advanced surgery than we had done a decade ago,” Chura said.

Plum learned she had cancer “accidentally” during a hysterectomy. After a complicated experience at another medical facility where she decided not to undergo chemotherapy, the cancer returned three years later. This time, she went to CTCA.

She became the very first CTCA patient to be accepted under the Teamsters insurance policy, which is where her husband was employed. The policy just came about after the Teamsters president was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Someone had recommended Dr. Chura specifically.

“We’re constantly refining our process of how we care for patients so that the goal is to get patients back to their normal state after surgery as quickly as possible,” Chura said.

Her chemotherapy happened weekly from March 14 to Aug. 1, 2014 — dates Plum has committed to memory. She said she was still in denial about having to undergo chemotherapy.

“Dr. Chura told me about the surgery and doing chemo, and all I remember is crying,” Plum said. “And then the first time I couldn’t do chemo, I cried.”

Melanie Corbman, manager of clinical genetics at CTCA Philadelphia, emphasized the importance of family history and genetics in ovarian cancer diagnosis. She said about 10 to 12 percent of people who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer were born with a risk to get the cancer.

The BRCA gene is a gene that is involved in DNA repair processes. If it does not work properly, it could put women at an 86-percent risk to get breast cancer, and a 45-percent risk to get ovarian cancer, Corbman said.

“It’s now recommended that every woman who gets diagnosed with ovarian cancer has genetic testing,” Corbman said. BRCA gene mutations are genetic, so if someone has the mutation, it’s possible her siblings and children do as well.

Corbman highlighted Angelina Jolie as an example. The actress’s mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, so she took tests and discovered she had a mutation in her BRCA gene. Between one in 500 to one in 800 women will have a BRCA mutation. Corbman said people who are Ashkenazi Jewish have a one in 40 chance of having the mutation.

Corbman cited Dr. Mary-Claire King, who discovered the BRCA gene, in saying any woman should get BRCA testing when they get to be 30 years old.

“[King] said any woman who gets diagnosed with breast cancer or ovarian cancer and then finds out she carries a BRCA mutation is a cancer that could have been avoided,” Corbman said. In her job, she looks closely at the patient’s family history to determine if that family has any genetic syndromes.

CTCA uses PARP inhibitor drugs, which is an oral chemotherapy treatment for people with the BRCA gene mutation.

When Plum visited CTCA for the first time, she was impressed by how happy everyone seemed and the piano playing in the lobby.

“We would come here every Friday and it was something I actually looked forward to,” she said. “My first Friday of not coming here, I didn’t know what to do.”

September marks four years of being cancer free. The survivor even has fond memories looking back.

“The only time I got sick was the time I ate the big chocolate chip cookie and the chocolate milkshake,” she said with a laugh. ••