During her 40-year career as a Magee-trained infertility specialist, Dr. Carolyn Kubik estimates that more than 1,000 children have been born as a result of pregnancies she assisted.
“It was amazing,” she says of the training she received, first as a resident from 1978 to 1982, then later as a reproductive endocrine fellow, through which she studied infertility treatments until she graduated in 1986. “By the time I finished my residency and fellowship, I really felt that I had all the skills that I needed to go right into a practice.”
But it was the care she received at Magee when she was unexpectedly diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer that she credits with saving her life, along with the contributions of the ovarian cancer patients before her whose participation in clinical trials shaped her care.
An unexpected diagnosis
She remembers the date so clearly: April 17, 2017, the day after Easter. “Like most patients who get this diagnosis, I had been feeling great and not experiencing any worrisome symptoms,” says Dr. Kubik.
She had gone to see her internist for an annual exam, and she pointed out a “pooching” in her abdomen, which she thought might be a hernia. The internist referred her to a surgeon, who decided to conduct a CT scan.
Instead of a hernia, the scan revealed an ovarian mass, as well as cancerous implants throughout her abdomen.
“I was pretty mad. This was the last thing I thought would ever happen to me,” she said. But she immediately faced her diagnosis head on, with characteristic determination.
Dr. Kubik’s next call was to Dr. Robert Edwards, chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital and an investigator with Magee-Womens Research Institute specializing in gynecologic cancer. The two doctors knew each other as colleagues.
Dr. Edwards looked at her CT scan results and scheduled her for surgery the next day.
“He saved my life,” Dr. Kubik says, simply. “The surgery didn’t really scare me … the diagnosis was the big deal.”
“It was a pretty aggressive surgery,” acknowledges Dr. Edwards, who removed several small tumors from Dr. Kubik’s abdominal cavity during the six-hour procedure.
At one point, he scrubbed out to give an update to her husband, Dr. Steele Filipek, another Magee doctor who retired a month before his wife’s diagnosis. Dr. Edwards trained under Dr. Filipek as a resident; in fact, he delivered his first baby under Dr. Filipek as a third-year medical student at Pitt.
When Dr. Kubik woke up from surgery, the first person she saw was a nurse who had worked with her when she was a resident. And the first thing she asked was: “What time is it?”
When she learned that it was 6:30, she was relieved: judging by the length of the surgery, she realized that Dr. Edwards had been able to get all the cancer. And she went back to sleep.
Later, she would learn that the surgery had removed her uterus, ovaries, appendix, spleen, gall bladder, and portions of her liver, colon, omentum – a fatty apron – and peritoneum, or lining of the abdomen. She would spend 10 days recovering in the hospital where she had trained.
A month later, a laparoscopy showed no cancer cells. Dr. Edwards put a port in her abdomen and subclavian vein, and Dr. Kubik began 18 weeks of intravenous and intraperitoneal chemotherapy at UPMC-Passavant, a community hospital that uses a team-based approach to cancer treatment. The availability of such a treatment at a community hospital is unusual, Dr. Edwards notes; typically, it would only be available at a larger facility.
By Halloween, her ports were removed, and her tumor marker has been normal ever since.
“She’s in about the best prognostic group you can be in,” says Dr. Edwards, adding that the lack of recurrence is also a positive sign. “She was really quite the trooper.”
A stranger’s gift
Dr. Kubik’s treatment via combination intravenous/intraperitoneal chemo was part of a protocol that Dr. Edwards has been researching and promoting both locally and nationally for about 20 years and continues to study. Though not yet universally accepted, three clinical trials have demonstrated its effectiveness compared to standard therapy, Dr. Edwards notes.
“It’s a little bit more rigorous to undergo, but Carolyn was game for it and really flew through it,” he says.
Among the women who contributed to the earlier clinical trials was Darcel Fahy, who was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer in 2010 when she was just 25. She lived another 7 ½ years, beating the low odds against a five-year survival rate for patients with her diagnosis. Throughout that time, she dedicated herself to two goals: contributing her body to the research that advances treatment of ovarian cancer, and living her life to the fullest.
She accomplished both.
Today, Dr. Kubik – who served as the division director of reproductive endocrinology at Magee from 1995-2000 – is back to work in her practice and living with a new appreciation for life.
“It was really important to me to be strong for my staff and for them to see: I was not going to let [cancer] beat me down. I was not going to let it stop my career. I just wasn’t letting it happen,” Dr. Kubik said. “I also think it’s important for patients who are anticipating going through this that you can’t let it take over your life. You’ve got to take control of it and show it who’s boss.”
She sent Dr. Edwards a letter titled “The Ten Best Things About Chemotherapy,” which he framed and hung in his office. In it, she expresses a new appreciation for the sunrise, for her family, and for the people who supported her, adding that her favorite quote is: It isn’t about living or dying. It’s about living until you die.
“I’m grateful for Dr. Edwards, for his team, for everybody,” Dr. Kubik said. “But the people
I’m most grateful to are the women who went through those clinical trials before me, who allowed me the benefit of having chemotherapy that is allowing me to live an enjoyable life. So that’s who I’m most grateful to, and that’s who I’m living for.”
September is National Ovarian and Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month. Donate to Magee-Womens Research Institute as we continue to make discoveries in the diagnosis and treatment of ovarian cancer.
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