So fantastic it’s embarrassing.
Those are the words of Anne Stoll, 64, of Kentwood, Michigan, her laugh echoing across the room.
She answers enthusiastically when asked how she is doing now.
Fantastic! unbelievable! Excellent!
Stoll’s mentality hadn’t always been so shiny and clear.
At the end of 2019, an attack of abdominal pain led to a visit to her GP. She felt short of breath and bloated.
Memories flooded in of a paternal grandmother who had died of ovarian cancer, and a maternal grandmother who lost her life to breast cancer.
Stoll’s doctor performed a BRCA gene test. The results showed a BRCA1 mutation, which puts her at high risk for breast and ovarian cancer.
The BRCA test can indicate a person’s chances of developing breast cancer or other cancers, in men and women. Mutations can be passed on from generation to generation.
“Then I had an ultrasound done,” Stoll said. “It showed a golf ball-sized tumor in my right ovary.”
In March 2020, doctors referred Stoll to Leigh Seamon, DO, MPH, a gynecologic oncologist at Spectrum Health.
“Anne came to the hospital for shortness of breath and had an evaluation that showed a clot in one of her main arteries in her pelvis and, because of her history of BRCA1 mutation, the doctors at the hospital got an ultrasound that showed a tumor in her hair. ovary,” said Dr. seamon.
Because of the BRCA1 gene mutation and the way the ovary appeared on imaging, Dr. Seamon a high rate of cancer.
“I explained to Anne that the BRCA1 gene mutation means she has a 45% lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer and a 70% lifetime risk of breast cancer,” the doctor said. “I recommended surgery, but she wasn’t ready for surgery yet.”
“I didn’t want to face that,” Stoll said. “I was really dragging my feet.”
Stoll said she had anything but a positive attitude at the time.
Overwhelmed, she thought about living alone. Who would help her?
“I was afraid I wouldn’t get support,” she said.
Given Stoll’s high cancer risk, Dr. Seamon strongly recommends surgery.
“This was ovarian cancer until proven otherwise,” said Dr. seamon.
Stoll met Dr. Seamon and the health team in a conference room.
“She was wonderful,” Stoll said of Dr. Seamon. “She was compassionate. Gave me all the facts. The team all assumed that I would have surgery, but I expressed my greatest fear: that I would not get the support I needed. And then there were the financial worries of being out of work for so long.”
Stoll told the team she wasn’t ready yet. She would think about it.
Meanwhile, her cancer markers continued to rise.
A CT scan in April 2020 showed the mass had grown to 9.2 centimeters, about the size of a grapefruit.
And then COVID-19 struck.
“Dr. Seamon scheduled (operation) for June 30. But on April 16, I contracted COVID-19,” Stoll said. “I spent three weeks in bed and lost 30 pounds. I had fatigue, fever, and chills.
“By the end of the third week, I couldn’t even walk,” she said. “I recognized the symptoms of another blood clot in my leg.”
In early May, Stoll went to Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center, where she underwent surgery to remove a blood clot that stretched from her leg to her abdomen. Doctors diagnosed her with chronic deep vein thrombosis.
During that time she had time to think.
“I felt so lonely and isolated after four weeks with COVID-19,” she said. “I struggled with depression and anxiety, and faced another major challenge of getting through surgery and recovery on my own.”
Struggling with a gloomy mood during her recovery, she was taken aback when she got a call from her Spectrum Health doctor.
“Anne’s ultrasound results showing a blood clot came across my desk,” said Dr. seamon. “My nurse, Leigh, called her because we were all concerned that she hadn’t planned an operation yet.
“We asked her to have her blood drawn,” said Dr. seamon. “And the tumor marker… had continued to rise. My nurse convinced her to come back for an interview. It was fate that her results came to my desk and she agreed to come back to the office.”
Stoll’s surgery has been moved to July 30, 2020.
dr. Seamon, however, was on vacation.
While it seemed that circumstances continued to push the operation to a later date, Stoll learned that Dr. Seamon had cut her vacation short and would return to perform the surgery.
dr. Seamon had been trained in robotic surgery and minimally invasive surgery and was preparing for a surgery that would take much of the day.
“The tumor had originated in the left fallopian tube, but had since spread to the right ovary and into one lymph node,” said Dr. seamon. “Anne had stage IIIC cancer. We have removed the fallopian tubes, uterus, ovaries and one lymph node.”
The trial stunned Stoll.
“It was almost magical,” Stoll said. “Because of the robotic surgery, I only had five small incisions. By evening I was out of the operating room and out of the hospital in a day and a half.”
Not that Stoll was ready to leave.
Again, her fear overcame her as she thought of returning home alone.
This time, however, she would not be alone.
Emily Mumford, an oncology social worker at Spectrum Health, was by her side. Mumford provides emotional support to patients and helps break down barriers to care. If necessary, she refers patients to therapists.
“I serve as a bridge to the resources my patient needs,” Mumford said. “We watched her emergency screen together and then I connected Anne with the resources she needed.”
“Emily jumped right in and helped me,” Stoll said. “I lost my job due to COVID-19. And she helped me apply for financial support from two foundations. I had rent money, money for utilities – and that took a lot of my stress away.’
When she got home, Stoll looked up at the 27 steps she needed to climb to her apartment.
“Would you believe I practically ran up those stairs?” Stoll laughed. “I did.”
A moment of triumph
Next hurdle: six cycles of chemotherapy.
Kelly Herrmann, RN, BSN, an oncology nurse navigator, met Stoll to guide her through chemotherapy.
“Kelly came to the doctor’s office to meet me,” Stoll said. “I was hesitant about chemo, but she got me through it. This would also keep me in my new positive attitude.”
Herrmann found Stoll in good spirits.
“I enjoyed Anne and her positive energy and attitude,” Herrmann said. “I was grateful to be a part of her care and to monitor her after each chemo infusion. The cycles are three weeks apart and she completed her last cycle in December 2021. My role was to check in with her after each cycle to see how she is doing.”
Leigh Joustra, RN, the chemotherapy nurse of Dr. Seamon, helped allay Stoll’s lingering concerns about chemotherapy.
“Anne struggled with high anxiety,” Joustra said. “We’ve had a lot of long conversations about what her treatment would look like.”
She spoke with Stoll about chemotherapy, treatment, and side effects. She assured her that the health team would help her every step of the way.
“Her fear is all but gone,” Joustra said. “Her positive outlook started to shine through and helped her overcome the fears that can surround chemotherapy and cancer treatment.”
After chemotherapy, Stoll surprised himself.
“I feel incredibly good,” she said. “With almost no side effects.”
When her hair began to fall out from the chemo, Stoll learned about Beautiful You, an organization that partners with Spectrum Health to help patients with cancer.
“What an incredible organization,” said Stoll. “They offer many free salon services to women and girls in cancer treatment. There I was at age 64 and in braids!
“They cut my pigtails and made donations to others in need of wigs. I got a beautiful wig of my choice, matching my hair color. As long as I was in treatment, I could come once a month for a service of my choice.”
Stoll says positivity contributed to her journey to better health.
Her initial hesitation has now been replaced by an attitude of embracing everything that comes her way.
“Even if you feel insecure and face seemingly insurmountable fears like I do, you can still face your circumstances and be optimistic about the outcome,” Stoll said.
“I have faced and overcome my worst fears. I planned to be all in, followed the rules my doctors gave me. I didn’t think I could do this alone – and I found the best team around me to help me every step of the way.”