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Ovarian Cancer Survivor

Kim Sheldon

   Kim Sheldon, Duvall, Washington
  • Diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 43 
  • Surgery to remove both ovaries, uterus, cervix, and 20 lymph nodes, as well as a tumor on her bladder and intestine, followed by chemotherapy 
  • BRCA1 gene in family

A sad irony of Kim Sheldon's successful battle with ovarian cancer is that her mother--who cared for her during treatment-- unknowingly had the very same disease at the time.

Sheldon's mother, Wanda Koons, died of ovarian cancer at age 71 the day after Mother's Day, 2003.

"She took me to treatment at SCCA and sat there all day," Sheldon says. "Then she stayed a couple of days when I was sick after treatment. We didn't realize …"

Koons had not been feeling well for some time. She'd had the flu and was losing weight. Finally after being urged by family members to seek medical attention, Koons saw a doctor at a local facility early in 2003. But by then the cancer had already spread, and her surgeon found a tumor in her colon the size of a grapefruit.

Despite the best efforts of her doctors, Wanda Koons died just two and a half months after her cancer was diagnosed.

Kim's story 

Kim Sheldon lives with her husband, Gary, on five wooded acres in Duvall, a small town about 25 miles east of Seattle. The couple has four children. They share their home with a menagerie of animals, including a cow and a gray parrot that was Koons' pet.

She's a strong, upbeat woman, says her younger sister, Kristi Gay. "She's probably the most giving person I know. She's always trying to make sure everybody else is happy before she herself is taken care of. …She lives within her means and never, ever complains. She never says, 'Why me?' She's just amazing."

Sheldon was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2001, at age 43.

A problem with her knee prompted a series of tests, including an MRI, which showed a suspicious mass on her ovary. Her knee specialist referred her to another doctor in Monroe, who referred her to SCCA.

She saw Dr. Barbara Goff, a UW Medicine gynecologic oncologist, on a Monday in March 2001 and went to surgery the next day. Dr. Goff removed both her ovaries, her uterus, her cervix, and about 20 lymph nodes. The cancer had spread to Sheldon's bladder and intestine as well, and Dr. Goff removed a tumor from the surface of these organs without removing the organs themselves, except for her appendix.

Sheldon was hospitalized for seven days following the surgery at University of Washington Medical Center and began her chemotherapy on the seventh day. She received six chemotherapy treatments with a combination of Taxol and carboplatin. The treatments were spaced three weeks apart.

Losing her hair was tougher to deal with than some other aspects of having cancer, says Sheldon. "It was hard," she says. "This says cancer to me. Having no hair was scarier than other things about this disease."

She shaved her head rather than watch her hair fall out, and she wore baseball caps on her bald head while at work driving the school bus. She says she dealt with the students' anxiety by making a game of it.

Closer to home, her youngest child was nine at the time and was upset by her cancer because he felt that "his summer was wrecked," Sheldon says. "He'd say, 'Mom, are you ever going to feel better?'"

Now years later, Sheldon does feel better, and life is pretty much back to normal. Looking back, she says she is glad she chose SCCA for her treatment. "I'm happy I was where I was," she says. "I was offered everything that was available."

Sheldon liked what she called the "one-stop shopping" at SCCA. She elaborates: "I got my flu shot, my CT scans, blood draws, mammograms … I went up and down the floors to get everything done in one place. That was nice."

A family history

Tests done at UW Medical Center showed that Sheldon and her mother shared a genetic mutation, BRCA1, that greatly increased their risk for ovarian cancer. The tests were done as part of a research study of breast and ovarian cancer genetics by Dr. Elizabeth Swisher, a UW gynecologic oncologist, and Mary-Claire King, Ph.D., a well-known geneticist.

Next, Sheldon's two sisters were tested, and one, 41-year-old Kristi Gay, also tested positive for the genetic mutation. Gay says that the procedure involved a simple blood test.

Gay recently elected to have a prophylactic hysterectomy. Her surgeon was Dr. Swisher. "I felt that taking a preventive approach gave me a better chance," she says, "especially since ovarian cancer is so hard to diagnose."

Gay has joined the Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Support Group, which meets every other month at the Team Survivor Northwest office in Seattle. "It's for women at increased risk for developing breast and ovarian cancer during our lifetimes," she says. "We talk about what we're going through and our family histories. And we have guest speakers."

She says hearing other women's stories at the support group meetings convinced her to go ahead with the hysterectomy.

Between 20 percent and 40 percent of women who have the BRCA1 mutation will get ovarian cancer, according to Dr. Swisher. "Kim got ovarian cancer in her early 40s," Dr. Swisher says. "Her mom did not get it until about 70. No one knows why some with the mutation get cancer and some don't, and why the difference in ages."

She estimates that about one in every 800 non-Jewish white women carries a mutation on either BRCA1 or BRCA2 (the rate is higher in Ashkenazi Jewish women). "These are estimates, as no one has tested enough women in the population without cancer to know how many carry the gene," she says.

Sheldon's two daughters, now 18 and 23, will be tested for the gene when they are older, she says. It is appropriate to do the testing at about age 25, explains Dr. Swisher, when she would recommend regular ovarian and breast cancer screening if they test positive.

"We encourage people to wait until it will make a difference in their health care," Dr. Swisher says. "And, as they get older, they are likely to deal with the information better."

Life after cancer

Sheldon completed her cancer treatment in 2001 and went to SCCA every three months for checkups. She used to think of the port-a-cath in place under the skin in her chest as her "lucky charm."

She says cancer changed the way she looks at life. "I think I appreciate life more," she says. "And I'm eager to serve other people."

One way Sheldon has helped others is by taking part in research studies. She participated in several studies, including the genetics study, as she went through treatment at SCCA and UW Medical Center.

These included participating in a support group for women with ovarian cancer and in a prevention study, and allowing her doctors to take tissue and blood samples to be used in research.

Sheldon also visits UW Medical Center at Easter and takes Easter bunnies to women with ovarian cancer who are hospitalized over the holiday.

Looking toward the future, Sheldon says she's optimistic about her chances of living to a ripe old age. It used to be, she says, that "this [diagnosis] was pretty much a death warrant. Now, I feel that even if it did come back, my doctors could keep me in remission to a good age."

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