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Henrietta Belcher-Stack: diagnosed with ovarian cancer, without ovaries

September 12, 2017

Sitting in her living room near Millsboro, Henrietta Belcher-Stack - Henri as her friends call her - thinks back to the time leading up to her diagnosis with ovarian cancer.

"I had pain in my side. My grandchildren were here and we were all getting ready to go to Disney, so I figured it was just the exertion of chasing after 2-year-olds," she said. However, when the pain woke her up in the middle of the night in Florida, she knew she better get it checked out. It wasn't a normal pain, she recalls, it was stabbing and extremely uncomfortable.

She saw Dr. Bhaskar Palekar when she returned to Delaware, and he ordered a number of tests, including the CA 125, which tests for ovarian cancer cells.

"It was such great foresight on his part to order that test. Often physicians do not order it; however, it is the test that saved me," said Belcher-Stack.

When the results returned, Palekar immediately ordered an ultrasound, an MRI, and soon a biopsy.

Belcher-Stack was getting ready for a work trip when Palekar called her and asked her to come into the office. "I told him - I just can't right now. Can't you just tell me," she said. "He told me he had never given the news on the phone, but that it was ovarian cancer."

"I was shocked," said her husband Jim Stack. "And scared."

She met with Dr. James Spellman. "I told him I needed to go on this work trip," said Belcher-Stack, who works for WSFS Bank as a reverse mortgage specialist. "He told me that I could go, but when I got back I was his."

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month

The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 22,440 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2017. It is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. Symptoms of ovarian cancer are often hard to detect. It often develops in more mature women and is more common in Caucasian women.

Diagnosing ovarian cancer can also be difficult. Physicians often start with blood tests and ultrasounds, and if a tumor is found, then a biopsy can be ordered. While the CA 125 blood test can help diagnose ovarian cancer, the CA 125 protein may also be elevated for other reasons, which is why the test is not regularly ordered for all women.

One of the most shocking parts of Belcher-Stack's story is that she developed ovarian cancer even though she had no ovaries. While it is rare, women can be diagnosed with ovarian cancer even after they have their ovaries removed. In some cases, cancerous tissues from the ovaries have spread to other tissues within the abdominal cavity.

"While I knew something was wrong, I would never have guessed ovarian cancer," she said. "It just seemed impossible that I could have it when I had no ovaries."

After her diagnosis, Belcher-Stack felt as if she were adrift in a sea of information. She researched ovarian cancer and then wished she hadn't because the information was scary.

"After the initial shock wore off, I remember sitting in my living room, in my favorite chair, thinking about it all, and I just realized that I was not ready to die. I knew I would do whatever I could," she said. "I was amazed how the path was just laid out in front of me. It was like a smooth transition. One day I didn't have cancer, then I did, and I knew exactly what steps I was going to take."

Working with Spellman, surgical oncologist, and Dr. Srihari Peri, medical oncologist, Belcher-Stack did 19 weeks of chemotherapy at Tunnell Cancer Center. She also did specialized shots every week of drugs that targeted cancer of the abdomen.

"Very quickly, we saw it was working," she said.

After the rounds of chemo were completed, it was time for a specialized surgery. Beebe is one of only 41 hospitals in the country to offer the HIPEC procedure.

"The surgery has been shown to be highly successful," said Spellman.

First, the surgical team removes all visible tumors inside the abdominal cavity. Then chemotherapy drugs are heated to 104 degrees and circulated inside the abdomen to kill any cancer cells not visible to the naked eye.

After surgery, Belcher-Stack recalled feeling sore and out of it, but not much different from other procedures.

"Having this kind of advanced procedure available for patients tells me that Beebe is dedicated to the health of the community and passionate about bringing the latest technology here," she said.

After HIPEC, patients can spend up to two weeks in the hospital recovering. She was discharged after 10 days to continue healing at home. Six weeks later, it was back to Tunnell for her second round of chemo and drug therapy.

Staying positive

"I don't know if I was always a positive person or if I just make more of an effort since cancer to be positive," said Belcher-Stack. "I do really focus on the good things in my life. Spending evenings on the porch talking to Jim, going to the beach with my family, taking the boat out, enjoying sunsets - these are all things that make life worth living."

She also stays active. She is a licensed Zumba instructor and teaches five classes each week around Sussex County. "My students depend on me and I depend on them. They are the reason I make sure to get to class each day," said Belcher-Stack with her trademark smile. "Even when I might not feel my best, when I walk in there and see their smiling faces, it energizes me. And, I get to dance almost every day - one of my favorite things!

"When I'm dancing, I don't think about anything else," she said.

Belcher-Stack tells her friends to talk to their physicians anytime something just doesn't feel right. And, she always talks about the benefits of staying positive.

"It was a different type of pain. I just knew something wasn't right. We need to be our own health advocates," she said. "In today's world, attitude is so much. You just have to stay positive and love your life. Get rid of the toxic and bring in the love."

For more information on ovarian cancer, go to https://bethere.beebehealthcare.org/gyn/articles/What-You-Need-to-Know-About-Ovarian-Cancer.html.

For more information on HIPEC, go to https://www.beebehealthcare.org/forms/beebe-healthcare-hipec-center.

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