Photo: MD Anderson Cancer Center
Those who have been through cancer often have some of the best advice on how to live life, as they have come so close to losing their own. This often creates an ability to distinguish what is important and what isn't, and Pam Scarpino now knows what is most important: staying true to oneself.
In October of 2007, Pam's life was changed forever. She was diagnosed with stage IIC high-grade serous ovarian cancer.
While her doctor was optimistic that she would live five years, Pam wanted more. She needed more assurance that she was getting the best treatment possible, and she researched where to get it. As she browsed the internet, a recurring result was MD Anderson for excellent treatment; however, this was difficult because she was a single mother of two teenage daughters, and they were all living in Kansas City, Missouri. Despite her desire for top-notch treatment, she did not have a desire to turn their whole world upside down to get it, so she looked for an option that was closer to home.
She went to undergo her first chemotherapy treatment, but suffered from anaphylactic shock as a result of an allergic reaction to Paclitaxel, which is commonly used as a method of treatment for ovarian cancer. Seeing that Pam was downtrodden, a nurse came over to give her some advice about how to proceed, "there's no do-over with this, so you can't worry about hurting anybody's feelings or whether you should not go to MD Anderson. Just do it." This finally convinced Pam that it was the right decision, and that everything would fall into place. She realized that nothing could be more important than getting the best treatment available to her.
Only three weeks after she had been given that piece of advice, Pam found herself in Houston meeting with her care team, led by Pedro Ramirez, M.D. She suddenly realized why this center for treatment was so different, and why it was able to inspire patients to beat their conditions. They had an entirely different attitude, and treated Pam as if she was in charge and worthy of discussing options with. She explained how this made her feel, "you have your medical record number, but you absolutely weren't a number to him. And that was something that was personally important to me. I had to have a doctor who believes in me, is going to hear me and is working in my best interest."
On her first visit to MD Anderson, she underwent chemotherapy for the second time. However, this time were extremely careful in ensuring she was capable of handling what they were putting her body through, and monitored her throughout the process. They clearly were not going to risk another anaphylactic shock, which made Pam feel safe in their care. She explains, "they would desensitize my body every time I went in for my treatment. The first chemotherapy treatment took 16 hours because they had to dilute it and give it to me very slowly."
However, the team at MD Anderson was more than willing to take their time with Pam, and ensure that they were not making any mistakes. Pam would return to the center every three weeks for chemotherapy. In April of 2008, a PET scan showed that she no longer displayed any signs of cancer.
After her evidence of remission, Pam was eligible to be involved in a clinical trial that would randomly assign patients either to XYOTAX or Taxol, or surveillance. Pam was part of the group receiving surveillance.
In December, Pam went back to MD Anderson for a follow-up appointment, but something within her was saying that the news was not going to be positive. Unfortunately, she was correct, and Dr. Ramirez found a new tumor just where the previous one had been. Not only that, but cancer was also present in her paraaortic lymph nodes, and unfortunately, it was not possible to operate on.
Dr. Ramirez decided that the best course of action from there was to have Pam take Paclitaxel and carboplatin again. This worked temporarily, but eventually she had to stop due to the nerve damage that had been caused.
The backup plan
Instead of Paclitaxel and carboplatin, Pam began weekly infusions of Taxotere, which is a chemotherapy drug. After she completed treatment, she knew she was fighting for her life and would need to be close to MD Anderson, so in December of 2009, she decided to move to Houston and start on intensity modulated radiation therapy.
In February of 2010, she completed her 33rd radiation treatment. A month later, she found that there was no evidence of cancer in her body - but this time, she has stayed in remission.
Pam explains how joyous the situation is for her, "I don't even know how to describe how that feels. It's amazing, and it continues to be amazing. With the strong support of Team Scarpino and my trust in God's plan for me, I am blessed to greet each morning with gratitude."
Fortunately, now Pam has her life ahead of her and she gets to decide what she wants to do with it, instead of basing it around how to treat her cancer.
Now, she is living in Iowa and has returned to working full time. She loved working before cancer, but she was unable to work during it. Fortunately, she has been able to return to the workforce and is doing well.
She also feels that it is necessary to give back after her experience, and as such, volunteers with myCancerConnection, which is one of MD Anderson's support programs where patients and caregivers are paired with others that can support them and talk through their experiences.
Pam sees her life as a blessing, and truly believes that many others may be influenced by what she has been through. She aims to empower others who have been affected by cancer, and show them the way through it, and how there can be a fulfilling life afterwards as well.
She explains what she wants people going through cancer to take with them, "each person has to figure out what works best for them and stay true to that ... People always ask me why I went all the way to Houston, and I simply look at them and say, 'If the engine falls out of your Ford, do you take it to the Chevy dealer? No, you go somewhere where someone knows how to take care of the Ford.' So I'm going to go where somebody knows how to take care of my cancer."
MD Anderson certainly did know how to take care of her cancer, and it is fortunate that she was able to make the life adjustment to seek out that treatment. Pam's story acts as an inspiration to those who are considering moving to being closer to treatment, or even just making a personal adjustment to accommodate the treatment they need. Pam shows that being true to yourself isn't just acting the way you always have, but being honest with yourself with what you need and want, and getting it.