Patient Stories

Ovarian Cancer Survivor

Suzanne Larsen

Suzanne Larsen, Ferndale, Washington
  • Diagnosed with two types of ovarian cancer at age 51 
  • Cured with surgery to remove ovaries followed by inpatient chemotherapy 

If you have ovarian cancer, choosing a doctor is "a life or death decision," says Suzanne Larsen, an ovarian cancer survivor. "If you are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, you need to be treated by a gynecologic oncologist who specializes in reproductive cancers. It's so important."

Ovarian cancer is the deadliest of the gynecologic cancers, with a five-year survival rate of only 15 to 25 percent for the most common type.

An outspoken woman with vivid green eyes and double-pierced ears, Larsen was treated with surgery and chemotherapy in 1996 by Dr. Benjamin E. Greer, a UW Medicine gynecologic oncologist. "The first cut is the most important," Larsen says of her cancer surgery. "You want the best person at the other end of the scalpel."

Larsen is a retired building inspector who lives in Ferndale, Wash., with her husband Ron, a sixth-grade teacher, and a yellow lab named Chance. The Larsens have three adult children and six grandsons.

Why see a Gynecologic Oncologist?

Larsen believes that being treated by a gynecologic oncologist when she was first diagnosed, rather than by a general surgeon or an obstetrician/gynecologist, saved her life. "It's not something that if it doesn't go well someone else can fix it," she says.

One reason Larsen feels so strongly about choosing a gynecologic oncologist is that she lost two friends to ovarian cancer about five years prior to her own diagnosis. Both sought treatment at UW Medical Center, but not until their cancers had spread. "Initially, they both were treated without a gynecologic oncologist," she says. "By the time they got to the U, it was too late."

So when the general practitioner who diagnosed her cancer offered to refer her to a general surgeon, she turned him down flat. "I said, no, I'm going to go where this is done the most frequently, with the highest success rate," she recalls.

That was on a Thursday in April 1996, and she was in surgery with Dr. Greer first thing the following Monday morning. Dr. Greer is a nationally renowned surgeon and specialist in the gynecologic oncology field who is a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, director of the division of Gynecologic Oncology at UW Medicine, and head of the Gynecologic Cancer Program at SCCA.

During Larsen's surgery at University of Washington Medical Center, Dr. Greer removed a tumor that was 20 centimeters in size. "She had a mixed ovarian cancer," Dr. Greer says, "including ovarian sarcoma. Most doctors who see that don't expect to cure the patient. But we're always going for the cure."

When interviewed for this article seven years later, in 2003, Dr. Greer said: "Suzanne probably is cured."

The shock of diagnosis

Larsen first saw her doctor to complain that she was losing weight yet bloating around the waist, she says. Larsen was 51 at the time and had a hysterectomy in her 30s but still had her ovaries.

She returned to the doctor after her husband said he felt a lump in her abdomen. That time she had an ultrasound and then the doctor sent her for more scans, including a CT.

"From the look on their faces, I knew I was in trouble," she says. "I was in shock. I couldn't even speak. I couldn't drive."

Larsen and her husband went to the doctor together to hear the results of the tests, but Larsen says she was so upset she could not comprehend what the doctor was saying. After she and Ron returned home from the appointment, she says she turned to her husband and said, "Ron, what do you think it is?" In fact, she says now, the doctor had said at least eight times during the appointment that she had ovarian cancer, but she was too shocked to take it in.

After her diagnosis, Larsen just prayed to live 30 days so she could "teach Ron where everything is," she says.

Finding ways to smile through treatment

The next week, Larsen had surgery at UW Medical Center, and Dr. Greer removed a large tumor that contained two different types of cancer.

She then had six inpatient chemotherapy treatments at UW Medical Center, one every three weeks, with each treatment lasting 24 hours. "My husband was with me every second," she says.

Larsen says she was quite apprehensive about chemotherapy--"Somebody hugging the toilet, that's what you think it's going to be"--but she sailed through the first couple of sessions. Later treatments were tough, but she says she kept the experience in perspective by keeping a journal in which she detailed how she felt on each day after chemotherapy.

"I wrote down how I felt, the pains, any odd sensations," she says, "and if I felt bad enough, then I'd call the nurse." In addition to the journal, she kept a running list of questions to ask her doctor taped to the fridge.

Both Larsens shaved their heads. Not afraid to attract attention, Suzanne Larsen decorated her bald head with peel-and-stick tattoos selected by her grandsons. "I did it because it made me smile," she says, and on Halloween she stuck on 31 bats and a gargoyle.

Six months after completing treatment, Larsen went back to Dr. Greer for a "second-look surgery," and there were no signs of cancer.

Time to sit back and enjoy

Two years later, Larsen retired from a very stressful job as a county building and code inspector because she realized the job was jeopardizing her health. "It was a lot of saying no to developers," she says of the work. With Ron's support, she decided to "sit back and watch the grandkids grow up."

The Larsens live in a waterfront home in Ferndale with a view of the San Juan Islands on property her parents bought in the 1960s.

Larsen comes to the SCCA clinic on south Lake Union for her yearly appointments with Dr. Greer, though she received her initial cancer treatment before SCCA opened its doors in 2001. "I was so relieved when SCCA started," she says, "because of the team approach."

She also recognizes the value of the research muscle of the SCCA parent organizations, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and UW Medicine. "[It] adds so much more security. If my cancer comes back, they're going to know what's available. I have no reason to go anywhere else, or to send anyone anywhere else."

Larsen is well aware of her good fortune, and that knowledge helps her to live every day to the fullest. "I'm blessed," she says, "I'm one of the survivors. But it came from finding the right person for surgery and for treatment. I still have some anxiety, but it's like my security blanket to know that Dr. Greer is there."