Always Having a Plan
When ovarian cancer entered Dorothy Somers’ life, she immediately started formulating a logical plan—which is what she always does when facing life’s challenges. A few days before Thanksgiving in 2003, Dorothy noticed her first symptom—pain on her left side. Before then, no one in her family had cancer. She led a very active and healthy lifestyle and was in great physical shape. In addition to working as a speech pathologist in both the San Bernardino school district and at a Rehab facility, she was continuing her education.
At that time, her son, Ron D’Alessandro was 34 and her daughter, Alicia Wintering was 30. On Thanksgiving Day, it was her tradition to take a long (3 mile) walk after eating the big meal. For the first time, Dorothy noticed she was winded and really needed to push herself to finish the walk. That weekend she had trouble fastening her pants and again noticed how tired she was when trying to take a walk with a friend.
The Monday following Thanksgiving she went to her primary care doctor, who ordered lab work and a CT scan for the following day. Unfortunately, the scan showed one of her ovaries was the size of a grapefruit (it should be the size of a almond) and her doctor said, "There is a good possibility you have ovarian cancer."
Plan A – Dorothy met with her daughter and called her son on the phone to inform them of the news. They decided that Alicia would continue school for her Bachelors Degree in Art and her son would look into the "Family Leave Act" and figure how he could be of help. Naturally, this was very upsetting to them all, but Dorothy had a class that night and pulled herself together. She informed her teacher of her situation and found her very supportive. They made a plan to get her the class notes and study sheets so she could continue during her recovery from surgery.
Next, she had to see what type of benefits she had from the San Bernardino school district. She discovered she had plenty of sick time and leave time available, which relieved her considerably. The staff at the Rehab facility immediately rallied around her, and the other speech therapist took over Dorothy’s patients. She now had a plan for her family and work responsibilities. After meeting with her lawyer regarding her will, she was ready to deal with her treatment.
Plan B – Referral to Dr. Terz (oncological surgeon) for a radical hysterectomy, which was scheduled for December 15, 2003. The surgery made her very weak, but as soon as she was able to she started exercising to build her strength back up to tackle the next plan.
Plan C – Referral to Dr. Chanduri for chemotherapy, which began January 19, 2004. She had six rounds of chemotherapy, three weeks apart. Dorothy experienced no nausea or pain. She did start going to bed earlier but arose ready to work on her computer at 5:30 am. She felt so good that she worked the entire time. She also attributed her ability to work during this time to the new family of supportive therapies that helped keep her blood counts in the normal range.
She also found attending the "Living in the Here & Now" support group helpful, as she got familiar with all the new terminology coming her way and listening to other members’ experiences. The tumor marker "CA125" monitors ovarian cancer (normal range is 0 – 35), and Dorothy’s started out at 2000! After surgery the marker went down to 670 and after her very first chemotherapy it went down to 37, which relieved her considerably. When treatment ended on May 3, 2004 her tumor marker was at 6!
At her three-month check-up after her last chemotherapy, her markers rose to 17. She began to worry and started formulating another plan. She started doing sit-ups to get her stomach back to her pre-surgery "flatness" and she continued attending the "Living in the Here & Now" support group, where she shared her hopes and fears with others. Then she noticed her left side was again becoming hard to the touch. Two months later, her CA 125 rose to 119 and Plan D was initiated.
Plan D – November 2004, Dr. Terz did more surgery and removed 80% of Dorothy’s large intestine. This time, the fatigue didn’t surprise her and healing took a while longer. She still managed to attend the family Thanksgiving and thought, "If this is going to be my last one, I want to spend it all together."
Plan E – Always a believer in second opinions, Dorothy went to Dr. Bosserman for a new plan. Dorothy was very educated about ovarian cancer and focused on statistics. She appreciated the additional options available to her, but realized that her type of cancer usually had a bleak outcome, especially when it comes back so soon after the initial therapy. Because of this recurrence the tumor tissue was sent to be tested to see what different type of chemotherapy would be effective.
This time she had two different drugs, two drugs on one day, one drug the next day and one drug the following day. Then she would have three weeks off and start the regime again. After three treatments with Dr. Bosserman, she returned to Dr. Chanduri for her remaining therapy. This therapy did not make her feel bad. In fact she felt so good she remembers thinking, "Hurry and unhook me, I’ve got things to do!" In addition to working full-time during this period, she even started going back to the gym. Her last treatment was April 2005 and her tumor marker went down to 6 again.
In June 2005, her daughter got married. The family was prepared to move up the date of the wedding when she began treatment for the second time, but it was not necessary.
Plan F – IF and when the CA125 marker rises again, she will have intraperitoneal chemotherapy. She hopes it won’t be necessary, but a plan is in place if needed!
Some Insights She Gained –
• She appreciated her children listening to her. They didn’t offer solutions, but they supported and encouraged her. Dorothy is so very grateful that it wasn’t one of her children who was diagnosed with cancer. Her cancer journey was hard, but would have been unbearable to her if it was one of her children going through it.
• The City of San Bernardino, which her son worked for, went above and beyond in allowing him to restructure his schedule so he could take her to treatments.
• Her employers, San Bernardino School District and the Rehab facility both worked with her and supported her through this time. She was always able to do her job, but appreciated all the encouragement she received from them and her co-workers.
• She had absolutely no trouble with her HMO or ProMed administrators.
• Her girlfriends were not very supportive. One actually asked her, "What did you do to get it?" Another friend kept offering advice and was critical when Dorothy didn’t act on her suggestions. A friend who was a breast cancer survivor (but treated many years ago) kept telling her horror stories about what to expect and couldn’t accept the fact that she didn’t have a hard time with the chemo. Her disappointment in her girlfriends hurt her, and Dorothy said, "I just wish they would have listened to me—it’s the most important thing we can do for each other—just listen."
• In preparing for "Plan F" she got another second opinion at City of Hope and was told by Dr. Morgan, Chief of Women’s Oncology, "No one could have given you better care than what you have had at the Cancer Care Center."
• Go ahead and let vanity "win-out" sometimes –as she has had corrective surgery to make her stomach as flat as it used to be!
Today, in addition to her busy life, Dorothy has started a third job! She works on Saturdays at the PVHMC rehab department (Physical Therapy) to evaluate patients’ swallowing to determine if they still need to be tube or intravenously fed. These patients would otherwise stay on invasive feeding over the weekend. Her evaluation makes those who are able to swallow to be taken off the other feeding methods. It makes her feel good to give back to the organization that has helped her so much.
Dorothy says her strength comes from her parents, who were both faced with many struggles in life and they taught her to be a "problem solver" and to use logic whenever possible. "Bad things happen to good people all the time, you just have to plan what to do next," said Dorothy.