A Tale of Two Lives – Surviving, fighting and educating through ovarian cancer
Known as one of the “silent killers,” ovarian cancer claims approximately 14,000 lives a year in the U.S., sparing no one … even children as young as two have crossed its path. With symptoms as benign as itching, back pain and lethargy, the beginning stages are often brushed aside, giving way to a heartbreaking late-stage diagnosis. With that diagnosis comes a will to fight … a will to live … and a will to conquer the disease.
Linda Bennett (featured in future post) and Dr. Samantha Bacchus fought a late-stage ovarian cancer diagnosis. Their enemy: the cancer. Their weapons: chemotherapy, surgery, love and the strength of a 100-man army. Their lives, and the lives of their families, were forever changed by this disease. In the wake of the fight, there is hope that their journey will bring attention and awareness to this disease.
Part 1: Dr. Samantha Bacchus
“Going through chemo was difficult … but telling my mom that something could end my life in a short time was hard … she is my hero.”
On June 13th, 2014, at 48 years old, retired pediatrician Dr. Samantha Bacchus had to tell her mother and family that she had been diagnosed with stage 4 High Grade Serous Adenocarcinoma, one of 30 known subtypes of ovarian cancer.
“I was under medical care for endometriosis and in April of 2014, I started itching around my belly button … within a month, I was itching everywhere except my face. I went to a specialist who dealt with itching and a dermatologist.” After taking every known allergy medicine under the sun and steroids, the itching persisted. Bacchus was exhibiting paraneoplastic symptoms, which are thought to happen when cancer-fighting antibodies or white blood cells (known as T cells) mistakenly attack normal cells in the nervous system, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Soon, blood work was done to rule out blood issues and then an ultrasound was ordered of her uterus and ovaries. During this ultrasound, an ovarian cyst was found, but doctors told her it was not cancer.
“In June, while my husband was in Gainesville, FL for work, I developed a cough after anesthesia for a biopsy that worsened. Chest X-ray confirmed a pleural effusion, which brought me to the ER. There I was diagnosed with cancer and would learn a week later after hysterectomy that I have stage 4a ovarian cancer.”
With no known family history of any cancer or disease and living a healthy lifestyle, the diagnosis came as a shock. However, while there were no cases of cancer in her family tree, she did learn that she in fact had risk factors. “I had a history of endometriosis and ovarian cysts, which are both risk factors, in addition to not having children.” It was also later determined that she is BRCA1 positive, increasing the risk of developing both ovarian and breast cancer. She ultimately decided to have a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy to minimize the risk of later developing breast cancer.
Bacchus had a 1 in 3 chance of living 5 years with stage 4 cancer. Today, she is seven years from her first diagnosis. While she did have a recurrence in 2016, she is now celebrating five years post-chemo.
“My outlook on life has been very different since chemo. I don’t worry about little things, I don’t put things off anymore. If I want to do things, I do it. Life is short. I learned that from my brother and sister. Life is unpredictable and can change instantaneously.” During her own battle with cancer, her brother and sister also had to fight their own medical battles. Sadly, in 2015, at the age of 54, her sister passed from lung disease and in 2018, at the age of 48, her brother died of heart disease.
Bacchus, who now lives in Newberry with her husband of 27 years, William Hensler, a retired biochemical engineer, and her mother Nesha Baksh, has turned her cancer diagnosis into an opportunity to educate others and live a full and bountiful life. “My diagnosis affirmed that we need to be together and closer, and do more together … not big things, even the little things, the day-to-day things that we weren’t doing because my husband was traveling with work.”
For the last three years, Bacchus has gone to Washington, D.C. where she has been involved with the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance as an Advocate Leader to lobby for funds for research and awareness and with Survivors Teaching Students® (STS). According to their website, STS “brings ovarian cancer survivors and caregivers into medical education programs to educate future healthcare providers about ovarian cancer by sharing their diagnosis, treatment and survivorship … in a classroom setting.”
But sharing her journey with ovarian cancer has only begun. “My goal is to bring awareness of ovarian cancer to Alachua County and support survivors and their caregivers. I also hope to bring the STS program here for the new generation of health care workers.”
This March, Bacchus will hold the first Sandy Sprint 5K walk at Prancing Horse Farm in Newberry with a goal to raise over $40,000 to put back into the community to educate men and women about ovarian cancer.
While her cancer is at bay today, Bacchus is aware of the statistics. Ovarian cancer has around a 70% recurrence rate. “That is why I am passionate about bringing awareness. There are no diagnostic tools, no screening test. It is a miracle that I am still here.”