Vilma Brice-Smith, 54, was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer on Halloween Day in 2014. She was 10 years younger than when her mother was diagnosed with the same cancer.
Vilma's story is not uncommon. Ovarian cancer, otherwise known as the “Whisper Killer”, can go undetected until it develops into late stage cancer—often too late for successful treatment. Since her mother's cancer diagnosis, Vilma was tested every six months.
In January 2014, a regularly scheduled six month pelvic and transvaginal ultrasound was inconclusive. Vilma's primary physician, Gabriella Bonomo, MD, recommended she be re-tested. However, when Vilma's insurance company denied coverage for the duplicate tests they waited the required six months to test again. Six months later, Vilma's pap results were also inconclusive. With no symptoms and a Tahiti vacation planned for September, Vilma and Dr. Bonomo agreed she could postpone her tests. She scheduled them for Oct. 31, 2014.
Near the end of her trip, Vilma found herself feeling bloated; had bouts of constipation, diarrhea, acid reflux and indigestion—all symptoms she did not regularly experience as a healthy, active and physically fit person. Upon her return to the states, symptoms worsened to include tenderness and periodic pain, with signs of a distended belly. Considering her recent travel and symptoms, Vilma went to a clinic to test for a parasite. The clinic visit ended with a diagnosis of most likely irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and the lab result showed no parasites. Vilma says this is when worry set in. "I sought answers from three different doctors, including a gastrointestinal physician. All three dismissed me, but I didn't feel right and in the back of my mind I just knew I had cancer," said Vilma.
On Halloween Day 2014, a physical exam is what sent Vilma, immediately, to Jupiter Medical Center for an ultrasound. "As policy, the technologist defers to the radiologist and could not tell me what was found, but that feeling of 'I have cancer' loudly whispered in my brain," said Vilma.
Vilma's suspicions were confirmed. The week between diagnosis and surgery is a blur. She was referred to Donna Pinelli, MD, a gynecologic oncologist and medical director of Jupiter Medical Center's robotic surgery program. One week and a day from diagnosis, a full hysterectomy was performed with the daVinci robot system.
"During the surgery, Dr. Pinelli found masses in my abdomen and colon and wrapped in the membranes of my belly." In addition to the hysterectomy, images were taken of each mass and their locations were marked. Dr. Pinelli and oncologist Talya Schwarzberg, MD, developed a treatment plan that included several aggressive chemotherapy treatments to reduce the size of the masses to allow for easier removal with robotic surgery. Vilma said, "The idea was to robotically remove the tumors so I could recover quickly and start a second round of chemotherapy sooner than if I were to have traditional surgery."
To gain strength, Vilma stopped her chemo treatments two weeks before for the second robotic surgery. She remembers waking up from the seven hour procedure to a smiling Dr. Pinelli, "Vilma, I did not see any evidence of disease; the masses are gone."
In addition to her expert, compassionate health team, Vilma credits the support she received from her husband, Richard, and their dog, Dukey, who stayed at her side every step of the way -- even through hours and hours of chemo treatments.
Now, with the chemotherapy treatments behind her, Vilma is confident in the care she received from Jupiter Medical Center and relieved to say she has no evidence of disease.
Since her diagnosis, Vilma actively speaks to others in the community about her cancer diagnosis and her experience at Jupiter Medical Center. " If I can influence even one person... I want to do whatever I can to spread the word about women's cancer," said Vilma.
Like many ovarian cancer patients, Vilma's story continues...
After a genetic test result indicating Vilma has the BRCA2 gene mutation and at the encouragement and support of her mother who is a 16-year ovarian cancer and four-year breast cancer survivor, Vilma is scheduled to have a double mastectomy at Jupiter Medical Center in October, two years after her first cancer diagnosis.
Vilma's advice to others is to be diligent with your health; get preventive tests and listen to your body when it tells you something is not quite right.