She was ornery, in the kind of way that people admire: speaking up for herself, fighting to savor every moment of a life that was too short because of a seemingly inexplicable illness.
When Darcel Fahy emerged from exploratory surgery at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in the summer of 2010, she demanded to see Dr. Robert Edwards and learn what he found. He broke the news: at 25, with no prior family history and no genetic markers, she had advanced ovarian cancer.
And the first thing she said was: “I won’t let this beat me.”
It would prove to be the beginning of a bond between doctor and patient that neither would forget, one that carried them through almost eight years of battle together against a disease that should not have happened, but did. And through it, together, they worked toward two goals: to give Darcel the opportunity to live her life as fully as possible, and to find better treatments for other women facing the same fight.
An unforgettable woman
“She’s one of those people that I still think about a lot,” says Dr. Edwards, who chairs Magee’s Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences and is an investigator with Magee-Womens Research Institute specializing in gynecologic cancer. “She left an indelible mark on everyone who took care of her.”
After her diagnosis, Darcel joined two clinical trials run by Dr. Edwards and donated heavily to a tissue and blood bank that he oversees. She lived near Windber, Pennsylvania — about 90 minutes from Pittsburgh. But she made the trip — first to Magee, then later to UPMC Passavant Hospital in the north suburbs — in pursuit of aggressive treatment that would extend her life and research that would help find answers for others.
She liked to joke whenever she saw Dr. Edwards: “Oh. I guess you want another blood sample,” she’d say.
“She named her colostomy bag Stanley,” Dr. Edwards recalls. “Every time she came in, she asked when she could get rid of Stanley.”
Her husband, Mike, loved watching them interact. Darcel would pick on Dr. Edwards, and he’d give it right back to her. Sometimes he wondered whether she should talk to her doctor that way; but that was Darcel’s style.
“I was just kind of there in the background, taking it all in. But she became friends with them,” he says of Darcel and her caregivers. “They weren’t just doctors. They would have conversations just about life.”
One of her nurses, Kelly Linn, has a photo of Darcel wearing skull-patterned leggings, her hair dyed in different colors. Darcel was close to the same age as Linn’s oldest son, and patient and nurse became close. Darcel never acted like she was there for cancer treatment; she came in like she was visiting her friends.
“I think I am close with all my patients. But she was different,” says Linn. They texted each other, and commented on each other’s Facebook pages.
As a gynecological oncology nurse, Linn tells her patients to live their lives to the fullest extent possible. “When you are faced with something like that, you have to say, ‘Okay, I have this,’ but you can’t just sit back and roll up in a ball. You have to try to fight. Because if you don’t, it’s going to be worse, I think,” she said. “If you just give up, then you’re letting the cancer win. And you can’t.”
Darcel understood that philosophy intuitively.
‘She lived her life’
What Mike Fahy remembers is how Darcel’s personality would electrify a room when she walked in.
They met through a friend of a friend and started dating in 2005, just after he graduated from college. Two years later, they married. And three years later, after seeking treatment for recurring pain, she was diagnosed.
“I told somebody at one point: I knew her longer with cancer than without it,” he says.
He recalls how his wife worked hard to raise awareness, raise money, and speak out about ovarian cancer; changing the course of the disease was what drove her to participate in the clinical trials: “she wanted ways to help people, and if not find a cure, find a way to detect it,” Mike Fahy says.
For about nine or 10 months, Darcel’s treatment went relatively well. Despite enduring a hysterectomy, her response was typical.
“She brought me a pin in the shape of a uterus and gave it to me to wear, saying, ‘You have my uterus now,’ ” Dr. Edwards said, and wear it he did. She also brought in a uterus-shaped doll.
The cancer recurred within a year, which did not bode well for her long-term prognosis. But between episodes, Darcel did have extensive periods where she was fairly functional, and she made the most of them. She and Mike went to car shows and took rides in their turbo convertible. Mike, a web developer and beer brewing enthusiast, sampled a coffee milk stout with her one day. Though she wasn’t a beer drinker, she loved it, and asked him to duplicate it.
But the treatment was aggressive, and with it came a host of side effects. Back came the colostomy bag. She tried immunotherapy. She underwent surgery to remove more tumors.
“We, with her blessing, did some pretty heroic maneuvers,” says Dr. Edwards. “She had some horrible, horrible postoperative stays and was still trying to maintain as normal a lifestyle as she could.”
Darcel still showed up to survivor events and walks, until she was too weak to attend.
“It was never a crushing sickness until it got to the very end,” says Mike. “I actually think her body gave out long before her mind did. She still wanted to keep going two days before she died.”
Darcel went to see Dr. Edwards one last time. She came home on a Thursday morning, and the next day, on Oct. 20, 2017, she died.
The five-year survival rate of patients diagnosed with Stage 3c ovarian cancer, like Darcel was, is just 39 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. Darcel lived for 7½ years, and Mike Fahy credits her care under Dr. Edwards with extending her life.
Kelly Linn, the nurse who bonded so closely with her, knew that Darcel would never recover. “You knew that going in because of how bad it was,” she said. “She knew that. And she lived her life. If she wanted to do something, she did it … which I think is wonderful.”
In the aftermath, hope
In September 2018, Mike threw a birthday party for Darcel to celebrate her memory. About three months later, he started brewing beer for Whitehorse Brewing in Berlin, Pennsylvania. In early 2019, he told them about the coffee milk stout that his late wife had wanted him to create. He thought it would be worthwhile to sell the beer as a fundraiser for Magee-Womens Research Institute, to honor Darcel’s wish to help find a cure, and to thank Dr. Edwards and the rest of her team for their care.
Immediately, Whitehorse was on board. They brewed 300 gallons of the stout, and 100 percent of the proceeds went to Magee. Mike also found love again in Kaitlin Martin, now his fiancée, who helped him organize an event around the beer’s release with the blessing of Darcel’s family. Together, they raised a total donation of $19,039.
“It’s one of the best beers I’ve made. I wouldn’t change a thing about it,” says Fahy, who no longer brews for Whitehorse but plans to sell the stout again as a fundraiser in September 2020 — both in memory of Darcel and for Ovarian Cancer Awareness month.
Its name: With You Always.
The search for answers
Dr. Edwards no longer wears the uterus pin that Darcel gave him, but he often thinks about the young patient who fought so hard to stay vibrant, fought so hard to stay alive.
There remain so many unanswered questions about Darcel’s illness. In addition to no family history of the disease, she was also negative for the BRCA breast cancer mutations, which is unusual in an ovarian cancer patient her age.
“Somehow, it would have been easier for such a young woman to be affected if you knew there was something you could do better,” he says.
He spends time on Indian Lake, not far from where the Fahys and their extended families still live. He wonders if he’ll run into them someday.
“She was a remarkable young woman for her spirit, for her determination, for her receptiveness to try everything — anything — to stay alive and continue to fight, even when most of the folks around her, including me, didn’t feel great about some of the treatments. But she continued to want to push on,” he says.
Kelly Linn summarizes it this way: “She didn’t let her diagnosis define her.
“She ruled it.”
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