Cervical Cancer Survivor
|Elizabeth Records, Mercer Island, Washington|
Elizabeth Records looks back on the year she spent battling cervical cancer and says, "It was the shortest, longest year of my life."
In remission after aggressive treatment in 2003, Records is healthy and back to work and enjoying weekends sailing with her husband, Michael, on the boat they bought to celebrate the end of her cancer treatment. "On the weekends, we stay on the boat," she says. "It's like camping--only better. I think we have the best sunsets in town."
Records was treated at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and at UW Medical Center by a team of gynecological cancer specialists that included gynecological oncologist Dr. Elizabeth Swisher, and radiation oncologist Dr. Wui-Jin Koh. She underwent surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
Dr. Swisher remembers Records as energetic, lively, and sensitive, with a mischievous sense of humor.
"She is a great example of [a patient who benefits from] the team approach," says Dr. Swisher. "She was sent to me for consideration of treatment. I worked with Dr. Wui-Jin Koh to formulate her treatment plan. …We jointly examined her during treatment to monitor her progress and to decide if she would need a hysterectomy. We worked with nutritionists to maintain her nutrition during treatment and prevent weight loss.
"This is an example of how a patient with a non-standard presentation and distribution of disease received an individualized and tailored treatment plan that involved coordination and teamwork from multiple specialties."
Records says of SCCA: "I admire that place. It's more clinical looking [than some other hospitals], but the people there are not clinical."
Of her doctors she says, "They saved my life."
Diagnosis through treatment
Records knew something was wrong months before her diagnosis, she says now, but she ignored it. "I was in denial," she says. She had skipped several annual exams, including the Pap tests that might have caught pre-cancerous changes in her cervix.
In the summer of 2002, just before a trip to San Francisco, she said to her boyfriend, "I think I have cancer."
After Records returned from the trip, she was busy and ignored her symptoms, which included heavy menstrual bleeding and severe anemia, until late September, when her mother took her to the emergency room at Harborview Medical Center, part of UW Medicine, an SCCA parent organization.
"There was a tumor on my cervix that the doctors could see," Records says. She needed blood transfusions for the anemia. She was hospitalized, and a team of gynecologists led by Dr. Susan Reed and Dr. Jennifer Melville visited her the following day.
The Harborview doctors told Records she had cervical cancer and arranged for her to be treated at SCCA and UW Medical Center. "They made the appointments for me at both places," she recalls. "I never had to do anything but show up."
Her treatment began soon after, with radiation therapy to stop the bleeding. She says her doctors could not do a hysterectomy at that point because the tumor was too large. Chemotherapy treatment started at the same time, consisting of six weekly outpatient treatments. The National Cancer Institute recommends the addition of chemotherapy to radiation therapy because it has been shown to dramatically improve the survival rates of women with advanced cervical cancer--by as much as 30 to 50 percent. Records had six rounds of chemotherapy with a drug called cisplatin.
After six weeks of daily external radiation treatments, she had internal radiation therapy, or brachytherapy, a procedure that sends radiation "right at the spot where the cancer is," Records says. She had five treatments, each lasting four hours.
Brachytherapy delivers radiation to a cervical tumor using radioactive material sealed in a rod that is inserted into the uterus. "Dr. Koh and Dr. Haleigh Werner did all of those, and they were very good," Records says. "It's not an easy task to relax while all of that is going on, but Dr. Werner has a very calm disposition."
Following the radiation and chemotherapy, Records' doctors wanted to do a PET scan to check for further cancer, but her insurance company would not pay for the procedure. Dr. Koh, Records' radiation oncologist, called the president of Cigna Healthcare directly to get the test approved, she says. The PET scan found a new spot on her lung that other tests and scans had not picked up.
"Dr. Koh saved my life," says Records. "He got that test approved. Who knows how long that tumor would have grown otherwise."
In December, Records had surgery to remove the tumor from her lung and have a biopsy done. Her surgeon was Dr. Douglas Wood, a cardiothoracic surgeon at UW Medical Center.
Finding that the cancer had spread to the lung "was my low point," Records says. She adds that Dr. Swisher helped her get back on track emotionally. "She really boosted me up," Records says. "She boosted my spirits."
"She is a strong person when faced with adversity," Dr. Swisher says of Records. "She called up inner strength I don't think she realized she had."
Dr. Swisher recommended that the surgery be followed by another series of chemotherapy treatments, with Taxol and Cisplatin, this time as an inpatient at UW Medical Center.
She received her last chemotherapy treatment in March 2003 and went to Mexico with Michael and a group of his banking clients shortly thereafter. She says she wore her wig—a beautiful, handmade wig of European hair—down on the plane but then took it off and never wore it again.
"I got so many comments," she says, "women coming up to me and telling me their stories, people telling me I looked great and was so brave. I just couldn't wear the wig after that. They had been open with me, so I wanted to reciprocate."
The power of support—and vanilla milkshakes
Looking back, Records says that what she calls the mental part of cancer treatment is harder to deal with than the physical part. "I would say to myself, 'I gotta do this,'" she says. "And your mind ignores the pain. It's the mental part of it that's hard."
Records had a roomful of people with her at each treatment, including her mother, boyfriend, sister, and sister's family, and her best friend from the age of 5, Candi, as well as another childhood friend, Maria.
"My mom and her 'Ya Ya Sisters' were there," she says, and a chef friend, Julie, who would bring her own folding chair and a cooler. "And she'd say, 'I made you a milkshake,' and she'd pull out a wonderful homemade vanilla milkshake."
Records says she never had fewer than four people with her at each treatment, and sometimes there were as many as eight. "That support continues to bring a tear to my eye and was a true inspiration to my recovery," she says.
Her doctors saw the difference this made. "She has a wonderful group of friends and loved ones who have been there for her during her treatment and given her additional strength," says Dr. Swisher.
As Records' hair grew back thick and curly and her energy returned to normal, she went sailing and played squash...throwing herself into life: "Now I'm cramming stuff into the weekends. It's like I want to live all in one weekend."