‘My dog saved my life’: How Madelyn has survived ovarian cancer for 10 years

Madelyn.
As a 10-year ovarian cancer survivor, Madelyn has beaten the odds. She says she owes it all to her dog, Zeus.

A cancer diagnosis can change anyone’s life forever. But what happens when a driven, ambitious woman with a Type A personality finds out she has ovarian cancer? That’s the situation my patient, Madelyn, faced. Less than 50 percent of women with advanced ovarian cancer survive at least five years after their initial diagnosis. Madelyn was diagnosed with stage IIIC ovarian cancer more than 10 years ago.

I’ve been Madelyn’s doctor for several years now, and I think her story is an inspirational one for women like her who are going through ovarian cancer treatment. I’ll let her share the story in her own words. 

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My dog saved my life

I used to live in Chicago and was involved in finance. I was a big shot at work – a Type-A, don’t-ever-stop kind of person. But I owe my life to my dog, Zeus.

I’ve had dogs my whole life, but Zeus was the best one I ever had. He was a former stakes racer at Bluffs Run Greyhound Park in Iowa. He was enormous. I’m only 5 feet tall, and Zeus’ back was at my hips. It’s one of the reasons I got him in the first place. He had such a good pedigree, and he was spectacular to watch. I was enamored with him. 

I was playing with Zeus in the yard one evening, and I wasn’t feeling well. I didn’t have anything that screamed “These are signs of ovarian cancer.” I thought I had just eaten some bad tacos.

Zeus kept nudging me in this one particular spot. He nudged me really hard at one point, and it hurt so bad that I actually doubled over and went to the ground. That’s when I was like, “Yeah, this probably isn’t tacos.” Zeus is the only reason I even saw a doctor. He saved my life.

Diagnosis and treatment

I received my stage IIIC ovarian cancer diagnosis in August 2006, and I was dumbfounded. Upon the advice of my physician, I did six cycles of intraperitoneal, or IP, chemotherapy, which involves chemotherapy delivered directly into the abdomen. The IP therapy bought me five wonderful years of remission. 

My husband, Todd, and I decided to move to the Dallas area. We had bought a house in Argyle, Texas, and we both had arranged to work from home. Everything was going according to plan. And then my cancer came back.

Debra Richardson, M.D.
Debra Richardson, M.D.

New plan, new treatment

You might think my cancer diagnosis would have slowed me down – that we would have had second thoughts about moving away from my doctor. But it had zero effect. I talked to my original oncologist and said, “OK, you know what I want, so find that for me.”

I knew I wanted a physician at a hospital that did research. I’ve been in research hospitals from the beginning, and I wanted to be under the care of a doctor who was not only a clinician but also a researcher. I wanted to have access to medications that were part of clinical trials. At age 37, I was young when I was diagnosed. I knew if I weren’t at a research hospital, my options would be limited to whatever the current standard of care is for ovarian cancer treatment.

So my oncologist referred me to UT Southwestern and Dr. Richardson. I tried two more rounds of treatment, and then Dr. Richardson helped me enroll in a clinical trial. The drug being tested was a pill I took every morning. That’s a big change from infusion therapy, which took eight or nine hours at a time. 

I had a really good response, and my side effects were minimal. I took the drug for about 11 months. Now I’m on a different infusion chemotherapy to treat my cancer.

A quiet milestone, and life changes

Not all women with ovarian cancer are as lucky as I’ve been. Dr. Richardson told me when I reached 10 years after my diagnosis I should throw a party. I told her she’d lost her mind. My reward for living 10 years is to work hard and entertain everybody else? No, I wasn’t doing that. So I asked, “How about we just have dinner instead?” And we did, and it was fun.

I’ve decided not to go back to my finance work, but I’ve gotten involved with the Greyhound Adoption League of Texas in a volunteer role. I currently serve as the organization’s philanthropic fundraising coordinator. I started volunteering with them because my chemotherapy was too rigorous to go back to work, but I wasn’t in bed all the time, so I decided it was a good way to make friends in Texas. And I have.

Caring about what matters

Cancer really teaches you about the stuff that matters. I care about the important things now. I’m grateful for my husband, for my friends and family, and for the life I’ve gotten to live because of my cancer treatment.

I was very vain before. But I couldn’t care less about vanity now. People like you regardless of what you look like, whether you’re too fat or too skinny, or whether you have no hair or eyelashes because of your chemotherapy. I don’t care about any of that now.

I think the biggest thing I’ve noticed is that I used to hold everyone to account. My Type-A, control-freak personality would take over sometimes. I would get angry or frustrated about something someone did or didn’t do.

But now everybody gets a pass from me. None of my friends, and none of my former colleagues even know I had cancer. So I think, “Well, they don’t know that about me, so I’m sure there’s stuff they’re dealing with and going through that I don’t know about them.” I let it all go, because most of the stuff that used to bother me doesn’t really matter.

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