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Linda Xerri lost her mother, grandmother and aunt to breast cancer. She was well aware of her increased breast cancer risk due to her strong family history. Linda is the mother of three children and works as a youth ministry coordinator at a Catholic school in Medford, New Jersey. With so many young people counting on her, not to mention her husband, Sam, Linda couldn't take any chances with her health.
Not many had made the connection between breast and ovarian cancer.
Linda was as proactive as they come. She routinely saw her gynecologist twice a year, versus the recommended once a year. "When I was 20 and living in New York City, I went to Sloan-Kettering to see a breast specialist," said Linda. Not many 20-year-olds are as concerned and educated as Linda was about breast cancer. However, at that point, no one had made the official connection between breast and ovarian cancer.
In October 2005, Linda experienced symptoms that raised concern. "I was gaining weight, felt tired, had occasional palpitations and hot flashes. My doctor figured I was perimenopausal," explained Linda. A few months later, she experienced intense abdominal pain. Her husband took Linda to the emergency room, where doctors found a small cyst on her left ovary and a fibroid.
"The doctors kept telling me it was a common cyst which would dissolve on its own. Two months later, I decided I couldn't wait it out any longer. I insisted that it be removed. The surgeon cooperated, but was not concerned - he told me there was a 99% chance it was not cancerous," said Linda.
After what was to be a simple laparoscopic surgery, Linda woke up in the intensive care unit surrounded by her family. "I knew something was wrong by the expressions on their faces. I thought I might have cancer," said Linda. Her suspicions were confirmed by the gynecologic oncologist, Dr. Randolph Deger, of Virtua Hospital (a Fox Chase Cancer Center Partner hospital) that Linda had ovarian cancer.
"My ovarian cancer had spread."
Linda immediately underwent a complete hysterectomy, debulking and spleenectomy. Because the cancer had spread to another organ, her spleen, it was considered stage IV, with a low volume of disease.
"Dr. Ozols is just what my family and I needed."
During Linda's recovery at home, she investigated her options for chemotherapy, which was the next step in her treatment plan. "I chose to see Dr. Robert Ozols, a medical oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center. In addition to his intelligence and reputation as one of the best doctors in his field, he has a positive attitude and gave me hope, which is what my family needed," Linda explained. "My husband and brother accompanied me to every appointment at Fox Chase. They are an amazing support team."
"You just get a positive feeling when you're at Fox Chase."
inda believes that "When someone is diagnosed with cancer, you can't take away their hope right from the start. That's what I liked from the moment I walked into Fox Chase. The staff is so warm. You just get a positive feeling when you're there."
Linda researched ovarian cancer to educate herself and her family on the disease. "I am very religious. I believe things happen for a reason. Maybe my reason is to help educate other women about ovarian cancer. I like to act on things, rather than feel sorry for myself. I wanted to get rid of the cancer, move on with my life and keep my positive attitude," said Linda.
"At Fox Chase, everyone wears a smile"
Linda started chemotherapy in June 2006 and spent the next four months in and out of Fox Chase's infusion room. She explained, "The nurses were fabulous and everyone wears a smile. They are compassionate, especially Ginny Martin, who made herself easily accessible to me. They went above and beyond their call of duty."
"Fox Chase makes your experience as normal as possible. They take an interest in you and your life - not just about your disease," Linda said. During the course of her treatment, Dr. Ozols retired. Her new doctor, Lainie Martin, leaves Linda feeling "extremely confident in her skills as a doctor and her compassion as a person."
Following treatment, Linda entered the Family Risk Assessment Program at Fox Chase under the medical supervision of Dr. Mary Daly. Linda's genetic testing showed she carries the BRCA1 gene mutation that puts her at increased risk of breast cancer. "Rather than waiting to see if I would develop it, I had a double mastectomy and reconstruction last year. There is no better way to prevent breast cancer," Linda said.
"By being an advocate, I can help other women."
Linda believes that by being an advocate, she can help other people. And she did. "In my family alone, I might have saved someone's life. My first cousin (whose mother died from breast cancer) was proactive with her health, similar to me. I urged her to request a pelvic ultrasound at her gynecologist appointment. Although she was only 39 at the time, her doctor agreed to perform the test. They found stage I ovarian cancer. She started her chemotherapy just as I finished mine," said Linda.
Linda's daughter already knows about the connection between breast and ovarian cancer and will take aggressive steps to manage those risks, while staying informed in the field of medical genetics. "My sons will also know how a BRCA1 mutation impacts their health so they can make informed decisions," said Linda.
Since finishing treatment, Linda not only joined the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, but has become the Community Outreach Coordinator in South Jersey.