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It should have been the best of times for 30-year-old Caitlin Deane. It was January 2018 and her boyfriend, Dave, had just moved up from Atlanta. They were living in Cincinnati’s vibrant Over-the-Rhine district north of downtown. Caitlin liked her job as a patient care assistant at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and the couple enjoyed spending their free time dining out, going to live music venues and hanging out with friends and family.
Then, the pain in her lower abdomen and erratic vaginal bleeding started. Caitlin attributed it to an intrauterine device (IUD) that had been implanted in her uterus as part of a research study. Over a month, her doctors performed exams, blood tests and ultrasounds. They gave her antibiotics for possible infection.
When the bleeding continued and the pain escalated to feel "like knives stuck in my lower back," Caitlin’s doctors decided to remove the IUD. During the procedure, they noticed abnormal tissue in her cervix, which a biopsy confirmed as cancer. MRI and positron emission tomography (PET) imaging scans revealed more bad news: She had a 7 cm tumor in her cervix, and the cancer had spread to her lungs, lymph nodes and bladder. Her stage 4 cervical cancer had a predicted survival rate of about 13 months.
When Caitlin and her mom first heard the news from her doctor, Caitlin recalls, "I had an out-of-body experience. I started pacing around the room. I couldn’t grasp what was going on."
The pain of the tumor crowding her body was nearly overwhelming and she felt a sense of hopelessness. She vaguely remembers her doctor telling her the odds of surviving beyond five years was about 15 percent. Numb with shock and despair, Caitlin and her mom went home. Her boyfriend, Dave, was there, and her sister and best friend came over. "There was a lot of of crying and phone calls," Caitlin says. "It was the worst day of my life."
After absorbing the initial bad news, Caitlin collected herself and began networking. The name of Jack Basil, MD, gynecologic oncologist at TriHealth’s Tristate Gynecologic Oncology and the TriHealth Cancer Institute, came up twice. First, from a friend who had had seen him for uterine cancer the year before. Second, a colleague in the OR at Children’s Hospital highly recommended him.
"Talking to those two, I had my first glimmer of hope," Caitlin says.
She saw Dr. Basil the following week at his office at Good Samaritan Hospital. Caitlin had previously worked at TriHealth’s Good Samaritan Hospital and her mom currently works there, so she felt comfortable being at the hospital.
Dr. Basil explained that with stage 4 cancer, surgery wasn’t an option. Chemotherapy offered a better chance of shrinking the tumor and curbing the spreading cancer. He recommended that Caitlin receive three chemotherapy drugs monthly for six months.
"The three-drug regimen is the standard of care for treating metastatic [cancer that has spread] or recurrent cervical cancer," Dr. Basil explains.
Caitlin readily agreed, and Dr. Basil praises her overall outlook, saying, "Caitlin has always wanted to be aggressive in her treatment. She has a very good attitude and a very good support system. Those are all positives in her case."
Caitlin adds that she also has an excellent medical team. "Dr. Basil is honest and direct: ‘Here’s what you have. Here’s what we’re going to do.’ I love him and his physician assistant, Liz Gaitley. They are very thorough. Whenever I needed anything done, they were right on it. They made me feel very supported, and I knew I could trust in them."
From April to September, Caitlin reported to Good Samaritan Hospital’s infusion center for her eight-hour treatments, receiving the chemo drugs one by one through a port in her upper chest.
Despite her reason for being there, Caitlin appreciated that the infusion center was nice, with big windows and her own private pod, she says. "My nurse, Mary Ann, and the other nurses were amazing. I always felt comforted and taken care of. They’d be as hopeful as they could, but realistic, too."
She had support from friends and family, as well. "People would drive me there and hang out all day."
Over time, a Go Fund Me page raised $50,000 for Caitlin’s medical and living expenses, and friends organized other fund raisers.
Two weeks after starting chemo, Caitlin shaved her head rather than continuing to see large clumps of hair coming out in the shower. To show their support, Caitlin’s best friend, Ali, and three male friends shaved their heads with her.
After each round of chemotherapy, Caitlin says the fatigue was the worst side effect, especially in the first week and a half after treatment. "After the first round, I learned how to cope with the chemo. I would sleep for a couple of days, eat a lot on the days I felt good and give myself something to look forward to, like going to see a friend or my nieces. I liked planning for a trip or seeing a concert."
Knowing that the chemotherapy was doing its job also helped her get through it. Caitlin notes, "After six treatments, my cancer was gone everywhere but my cervix – and that was down to 3 centimeters."
Dr. Basil recommended two additional rounds of chemotherapy in the fall to further reduce her cervical cancer.
In November 2018, Caitlin went with her boyfriend, her best friend and her mom to see Dr. Basil. He reported that her scans showed no signs of cancer and that she could do anything her energy levels would allow her to do.
A year after her diagnosis, Caitlin and Dave celebrated being cancer-free by throwing a party with dozens of friends and family at a popular venue in Over-the-Rhine. "I wanted to thank everyone for their love and support."
Caitlin has embraced the exhilaration of moving beyond cancer, but she knows her current good health is not a guarantee that the cancer won’t come back. She is still working through the post-traumatic stress of her cancer diagnosis and treatment over the past 12 months.
During the course of her treatment, Caitlin learned that her cervical cancer was most likely caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). She has become an advocate for the HPV vaccine, which Dr. Basil says has the potential to decrease the number of cervical cancers we see. She also encourages women to receive their Pap smears routinely for early detection of abnormal cells.
Dr. Basil is thrilled that Caitlin had a complete response to her chemotherapy treatment. He adds that the exponential growth of therapies that target specific cancers offers hope to a lot of people with cancer or cancer recurrence.
"I look at pictures of myself before this happened and think I didn’t know what was coming," Caitlin says. "Life was easier then; I appreciate the little things now. The most important thing in life is to be around people you love and enjoy."
She is so grateful to everyone who supported her: "They’ve all been so strong for me, right by my side, right there with me. I felt totally taken care of. I'm so lucky."