Michael Birrer, MD, PhD, with Kim Lohnes
Nearly two years ago, Kim Lohnes was diagnosed with stage-four ovarian cancer. Thanks to innovative care – and her strong spirit – Kim plans to mark that milestone and spend the first half of 2011 caring for others in impoverished African health centers and orphanages.
In March of 2009, Kim was a busy small business owner operating a successful flower shop. She had a healthy, active lifestyle and seemingly boundless energy. Since Kim had a family history of breast and ovarian cancer, she was on a regimen of special medical observation every six months. Despite this careful approach, by the time Kim’s enlarged ovaries were detected through trans-vaginal ultrasound the disease had already spread throughout her abdomen.
Exceptional surgical care, innovative clinical trials
Two weeks after her diagnosis, Mass General Cancer Center Gynecologic Oncology DirectorJohn Schorge, MD, performed aggressive cytoreductive surgery. Dr. Schorge was not only able to remove virtually all of Kim’s tumor tissue, he also placed a catheter in her abdomen and recommended a clinical trial of intra-peritoneal (IP) chemotherapy combined with bevacizumab to eradicate any traces of the disease.
Michael Birrer, MD, PhD, medical oncologist and director of the Cancer Center’s gynecologic cancer research program, worked with Dr. Schorge to see Kim through the clinical trial. The therapy was intense: 18 cycles of chemotherapy over 4 ½ months, including the intra-peritoneal (IP) therapy that delivered chemo directly to her abdomen. By the midpoint, Kim felt very weak. She lost 30 pounds and could no longer meet the physical demands of running her busy shop.
Despite the physical toll exacted by the clinical trial, Kim finished the entire regimen in September 2009. Initial scans appeared devastating – glowing spots indicated that tumors tissue remained throughout her abdomen. However, her medical team was cautiously optimistic. “Sometimes, following intense therapy, abdominal scarring can occur” explains Dr. Birrer. “The scarring can look like tumor tissue on scans, so we have to wait until the body heals a bit to assess the effectiveness of therapy.” Fortunately, Dr. Birrer’s theory proved correct – scans one month later showed no trace of cancer.
Kim was elated, of course, but still quite weak. It took almost another year before she truly looked and felt like herself again. During that time, she evaluated her life goals and what she had learned from her cancer experience.
Moving forward, giving back
Before her diagnosis, Kim longed to sell her business and seek out a new challenge, but put that dream off due to the poor economy. Going through treatment helped her realize she could no longer postpone her happiness. She set a firm date – June 1 – for selling her business, and began to research opportunities to give back through volunteerism.
“I have always had an affinity for healthcare,” says Kim, who studied Pharmacy in college before beginning a career in the corporate sector. “My experience in treatment brought that into sharper focus and I knew I wanted to help care for the under-privileged.” Not one to shy away from a challenge, Kim completed an immersion program in EMT training last fall and is currently taking her certification exams. After her final exam this week, she will travel to Ghana for three months, then on to South Africa for two months, splitting her time in both countries between orphanages and health care visits.
So often, we are struck by what cancer takes from us. It can take our resources, our health, our hair, our strength, our loved ones and our lives. For Kim, it took a long year of intense treatment, and she lives with the knowledge that she could have a recurrence in the future. But going through treatment can also be a transformative experience that yields surprising gifts.
“Before treatment, I’d volunteered abroad, but never for so long,” Kim reflects. “Going through this experience has given me the courage to commit myself wholeheartedly. I have more in my life now. I laugh more, do more, feel more, and I love more.”