Ovarian cancer is sneaky disease
Two weeks off were all Kim Corey wanted in June.
Her family was moving from Post Falls to a new home in Cataldo. Kim also had a nagging kink in her shoulder blades she wanted a doctor to check. The Idaho State Police, where Kim was training as a dispatcher and her husband, Todd, was training as a trooper, understood the demands of moving a family with four children. Time off was no problem.
But, four months later, Kim, 38, still hasn’t returned to work, and the ISP is alarmed. The Corey family is settled in their new home. But Kim’s visit to the doctor led to medication that sickened her, more visits to the doctor, internal pain and, finally, a diagnosis of late-stage ovarian cancer.
“They are some of the nicest people you would ever want to meet and it breaks my heart to see what this is doing to them,” says ISP Capt. Wayne Longo, Todd’s boss.
The ISP has organized several benefits to raise money for Kim’s medical treatments. Health insurance covers the conventional cancer treatments she’s undergoing at Valley Hospital in Spokane. She’s also undergoing alternative cancer therapies in Nevada. Those cost at least $15,000 and aren’t covered by insurance.
“You don’t even know how many people you know until something like this happens,” Kim says, recovering on her living room couch from chemotherapy treatment. She points to get-well cards crowded together on her mantle, but her arm is distracting. It’s white as alabaster.
Kim’s doctor blamed shingles for the kink in her shoulder blades. Shingles is a virus on the order of chicken pox. The antibiotic Kim took to kill the virus made her sick. So did other medications her doctor tried. Her insides rebelled for three weeks and she ran a fever. A test finally showed that her gall bladder wasn’t working. Kim was relieved to learn the root of her problem.
A naturopathic doctor gave her herbal remedies that calmed her pain. But her fever persisted, occasionally drenching her in sweat. In mid-July, her left groin began to ache. Kim told her doctor she had pain in her left ovary. An ultrasound revealed a large cyst.
Kim’s doctor told her cysts were common, not to worry, that she’d check it again in six to eight weeks. Kim’s symptoms eased and she felt better. She returned to the lab for tests in mid-September and immediately knew something was wrong.
“There’s that look and furrowed brow,” she says. “I asked if the cyst was still there and was told yes and that there was fluid around the uterus.”
The mention of fluid alarmed Kim. Her father had had cancer and a common identifier was fluid around his lungs. The lab sent her straight to her doctor.
“I was thinking it was an emergency, that they’d do something right away,” Kim says.
Her doctor scheduled surgery for the following week to remove the cyst at Valley Hospital. But the whole surgical team couldn’t make the date, so surgery was moved back a week. Kim complained but was told the next available date was in November.
On Oct. 5, surgeons removed Kim’s cyst and determined she had ovarian cancer in one of its later stages. It had spread to her colon, liver and tissue that supports her abdomen. Cancer cells were in fluid in her abdomen and lung cavity. The doctor told Todd first.
“She said it was terribly bad news, that she was devastated about where it had spread. She said she was terribly sorry,” he says, pulling Kim’s hand into his.
Ninety-five percent of women with ovarian cancer survive when they’re diagnosed early, but the survival rate drops to 31 percent for women diagnosed in the late stages, according to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance. The Alliance represents the nation’s seven major ovarian cancer groups and is coordinating efforts to raise awareness nationwide of ovarian cancer among policy-makers and health care leaders.
Kim was directed to Dr. Elizabeth Grosen, a gynecologic oncologist – a doctor who specializes in cancer in women’s reproductive systems – at Cancer Care Northwest in Spokane. She’s one of two such specialists in the Inland Northwest.
Dr. Grosen and her partner, Dr. Melanie Snyder, treat about 60 cases of ovarian cancer a year. Seventy percent are in the late stages of the cancer when they arrive in the Cancer Care office. That statistic frustrates Dr. Grosen. She wants the medical community to be as aware of ovarian cancer as it is of breast cancer.
“The problem with ovarian cancer is that it’s not on your mind when your patient is a young woman,” she says. “And there’s no good screening test for this disease.”
Cases like Kim’s are so familiar to Dr. Grosen that the doctor is working on a book to teach patients how to advocate for themselves. Ovarian cancer is not high-profile enough for women and, in many cases, doctors fail to recognize symptoms that mimic other health problems. Gall bladder diagnoses are typical, she says, and steal valuable treatment time from the real problem of ovarian cancer. Kim’s malfunctioning gall bladder was an indication of greater problems that her doctor would have noticed if she’d included a pelvic exam in the hunt for the cause of Kim’s discomfort.
Kim started chemotherapy with Dr. Grosen last week. She’s also undergoing alternative cancer treatments with Dr. W. Douglas Brodie in Reno, Nev. He treats cancer as a systemic disease rather than an isolated tumor run amok. He first rids the body of toxins that distract the immune system, then fills the patient with nutrients, vitamins and minerals that enhance the immune system.
He designs his treatment to work with conventional cancer treatment.
Kim’s diagnosis left her family in shock and friends reeling. Chemotherapy has wiped her out. Her blue eyes seem sunk into her face. Her naturally pale skin that seemed delicate before the diagnosis is now alarming.
“She’s such a pure, beautiful, sweet mom and wife and there’s no reason for this,” says Judy Henry. She runs an art business in Coeur d’Alene that Kim helped open. “It floored me that this happens all the time. It’s a cause I see worth fighting for.”
Judy is starting a foundation to raise money for Kim and public awareness of ovarian cancer. She hopes Kim will run the foundation – the Kim Corey Foundation for the Early Detection of Ovarian Cancer – when her cancer is long gone. Judy is donating 10 percent of any art she sells to the foundation to get it going. Her art is available at www.paintedladies.us.
The North Idaho Cancer Center has scheduled a special workshop in February 2005 for family practice doctors in the Panhandle and Spokane Valley on early detection of ovarian cancer. The cancer center sees about 12 new ovarian cancer patients a year.
“There needs to be better awareness,” says Cindy Shannon, one of the center’s clinical social workers.
Todd and Kim told their kids about the cancer. Kim home-schools the children, but school is temporarily on hold.
“It’s an owie in my tummy,” Kim says with a gentle smile. “I still look like Mom. I’m just not as active.”
Todd’s sister watches the Corey children while Kim and Todd travel to Reno for treatments. Kim’s mom, Vivian Becker, has arranged a benefit potluck with live music to raise money for her daughter’s treatments. The ISP organized a benefit lunch and is planning a yard sale, craft fair and spaghetti feed. Kim’s friends have planned a bake sale and rummage sale. Scrapbook stores in Coeur d’Alene have put out boxes for donations of scrapbook items for Kim because she wants to make scrapbooks for her children.
And Faith Baptist Church has opened the Kim Corey Benevolent Fund at the Hillyard Branch of Bank of America.
But money is not the Coreys’ greatest concern right now.
“We’re emotioned out,” Kim says, tiredly leaning her head against Todd’s shoulder. “There are no more tears in the tear ducts.”
“It doesn’t seem real,” Todd says. “Someone said we seem to be handling it well. Really we’re not, but we want to be strong and supportive for the kids.”