Stories of Hope
Survivor of Peritoneum Cancer Finds Answers on Cancer.org
Article date: April 30, 2013
"I gutted through treatment, presented only my most positive self, and somehow charged through it all like a maverick."
Five years ago, Roberta Aberle thought she had avoided cancer when—following the advice of her gynecologist—she underwent a hysterectomy with removal of her ovaries. Aberle had a history of non-cancerous fibroid tumors and was experiencing bloating and other troubling symptoms. Her sister had died from ovarian cancer 6 months earlier.
“They said I dodged a bullet,” said Aberle. “There were cysts and disease everywhere. I thought, ‘I have just changed my fate. I will not have cancer in that area. I won’t have a gynecological cancer to deal with.’”
Her family’s experience with cancer has been in Aberle’s words, “overwhelming.” Another sister died this year of uterine cancer and a third sister is a breast cancer survivor. To learn more about the cause, two of the sisters were tested for genetic mutations in the BRCA genes, which increase the risk for breast, ovarian, and other cancers. One had a mutation and one did not. Aberle decided not to be tested.
Primary peritoneal carcinoma
In February 2012, Aberle had recently landed her dream job at University of Colorado Hospital as a quality management consultant. She began losing weight, but chalked it up to running around the large campus and climbing up and down stairs in several buildings. But when a stomach ache persisted for 2 weeks, she went to the emergency room during her lunch hour for tests.
A CT scan found masses on her spleen, gallbladder, liver, diaphragm, peritoneal cavity, throughout her abdomen, and spreading into her colon. Aberle called the news “devastating and unbelievable.” While frightened about her own health, she was also concerned about adding to her parents’ sorrow, and worried about her pets who were home alone. The doctor offered to stay overnight with the pets, a kindness Aberle found both touching and terrifying. She thought, “This means I’m really sick.”
She was diagnosed with primary peritoneal carcinoma. This kind of cancer is thought to develop from the cells in the peritoneum, which is the lining of the pelvis and abdomen. These cells are similar to those on the surface of ovaries, and women with this cancer usually receive the same medical treatment as those with widespread ovarian cancer.
Aberle underwent 28 weeks of chemotherapy and responded so well that many of her tumors are no longer detectable. She’s now taking Avastin (bevacizumab), another therapy designed to slow or stop tumor growth. She hopes her tumors will shrink enough to enable surgeons to remove all of her remaining cancer.
Finding resources and services
Aberle said the multiple cancer diagnoses rocked her family to its core. She said, “It is impossible enough to keep up with the responsibilities of day-to-day to even have time to lift our heads from the quicksand to see what surrounds us for services.” She found the American Cancer Society website cancer.org her go-to place for answers to her many questions about different cancer types, treatment, and caregiving. She said the common-sense layout of information, especially the Detailed Guides in the Learn About Cancer sections made her a frequent and heavy-duty visitor.
She also took advantage of the American Cancer Society Patient Navigator program at University of Colorado Cancer Center. The program connects patients to a cancer education and support specialist who guides patients through some of the emotional and financial challenges that cancer can bring.
And she attended a Look Good Feel Better workshop. This free, national public service program teaches cancer patients to manage the appearance side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Volunteers at the workshop gave Aberle tips on makeup and skincare.
Writing as a release
Through it all, Aberle continued to work and enjoy an active social life. She said, “I gutted through treatment, presented only my most positive self, and somehow charged through it all like a maverick.”
Because she enjoys writing, she also started her own website and began sharing her story. She said pouring out her emotions on the site has helped her get through some of the more difficult times. She said what was once a pastime has become an outlet that helped her through a catastrophic diagnosis.
She also found it rewarding to use her site as a way to educate and inspire others, and present her observations from the patient’s perspective. Aberle said, “What moves me is when someone says, ‘Wow, I never thought about it that way. You made me think differently today because of what you wrote.’”