When it comes to cancer, Teresa Gately says having a positive attitude is the key to fighting a prolonged battle.
The 71-year-old East Hampstead, New Hampshire-resident is a cancer survivor of two types – breast and fallopian tube. Years of living with the disease have taught her life doesn’t stop just because you get cancer.
Teresa’s survivor story started on the golf course in 2012, a day of which the memories are crystal clear.
She noticed some strange symptoms. Suddenly, she felt a need to urinate and this sensation wouldn’t subside.
“I’m home and I got a sharp pain in my abdomen, on the left side then the right side, every 10 minutes or so,” she explained. “It alternated and then it went away.”
Nonetheless, Teresa wasn’t too worried about the strange pains. The following week, she was due to see her primary care physician for a routine physical. She thought she’d address it then. But by the time the appointment arrived, the pain was gone.
The doctor, upon learning of these unusual pains felt an ultrasound was needed, even though it was no longer a problem.
“He didn’t like what he saw,” she said of the scan. “I remember what he said: ‘I think this might be a situation for Lahey.'”
Teresa’s doctor scheduled an appointment for her with a gynecology doctor in a week.
The results came back and it was clear. He told Teresa she had Stage III fallopian tube cancer.
“It was like the doctor took a cement block and threw it,” she said.
Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington, Massachusetts, was less than an hour’s drive from Teresa’s home. There were other hospitals closer, so she asked, “Why Lahey?”
Her doctor said “Lahey has some of the best women’s cancer surgeons and doctors,” Teresa recalled.
Shortly after this conversation, Teresa met Dr. Corrine Zarwan, MD, the Director of the Women’s Cancer Program at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center and Associate Director and Clinical Research Director of the Lahey Health Cancer Institute. Zarwan oversaw Teresa’s oncology treatment.
The chemotherapy treatments depleted Teresa of her energy. During the first round of chemotherapy, she couldn’t drive. She had trouble staying awake.
“I got through it with the great support from my husband John, my children and other family members,” Teresa said. “It is important that patients have a positive attitude and stay strong or the disease will just engulf you.”
A second round of treatments was needed a couple years later. The second round of chemo was less arduous, but not easy by any stretch of the imagination. At the end of the second round of chemotherapy Teresa was again in remission, but had a very high risk of future recurrence.
Dr. Zarwan helped Teresa enroll in one of Lahey’s clinical trials, specifically one in which a new drug might prolong her remission. She was required to take two pills every day. But she did not know if she was receiving the experimental drug or a placebo.
In short: researchers were looking for patients diagnosed with this type of cancer, who had undergone chemotherapy, experienced a recurrence of the cancer and needed a subsequent round of chemo.
“I happened to be the ideal candidate for this study,” she said.
Once on it, her blood platelets started “going crazy,” a sign she was likely on the medication rather than the placebo.
Her cancer stabilized from the trial. She has remained on the study medication for over three years and has not had another cancer recurrence. The medication she was on has since been approved by the Federal Drug Administration and has become the standard of care.
“Teresa has responded really well to treatment and has maintained a great attitude,” Dr. Zarwan said. “She was able to gain access to the study drug Niraparib well before it was FDA approved and she has done really well. She has no symptoms of her cancer and minimal side effects from her treatment.”
Clinical trials such as the ones Teresa participated in are so important, Zarwan explained, because patients can get access to experimental drugs not yet approved, and it helps push the field of medicine forward, helping patients in the future.
But this wasn’t the end of the road for Teresa. Last year, she was diagnosed with Stage I breast cancer.
“I did not need chemo or radiation,” Teresa said.
After the surgical removal of the tumor, the course of treatment was to take an estrogen blocker daily.
Despite the odds, Teresa said she feels calm. The cancer is still there, but stable. And she is able to get out and do things with her husband, John. The two have been married 47 years and they’ve traveled to exotic places like South America, Australia and New Zealand, all while Teresa has had cancer.
Of her treatment at Lahey, Teresa said she knows she went to the right place. The nurses who cared for her over the past six years have maintained a special role in Teresa’s life.
“The nurses here are phenomenal, and everyone has been great,” she said. “Especially Dr. Zarwan, she says jump and I ask, ‘How high?’ That is how much I trust her.”