September 9, 2022

Maintaining positivity and purpose

Susan Skiles and Sandy Sabel
Susan Skiles and Sandy Sabel

Susan Skiles and her wife, Sandy Sabel, always looked forward to their trip to Florida each October, a relaxing week spent celebrating Sabel’s birthday and their wedding anniversary.

But in 2017, the trip was dampened some by Skiles’ back pain. At first, she assumed it was normal strain from doing house and yard work.

“I did some yoga and stretching, and it helped, but it never really went away,” said Skiles, who lives in the Appleton area.

After returning home, Skiles began feeling more unwell and eating less. She made an appointment with a general practitioner, who diagnosed her with acid reflux and gave her medication that caused severe side effects, including substantial weight loss.

Skiles knew something more serious was happening in her body and pushed for additional testing. A CT scan that showed masses the size of a grapefruit and an orange in her abdomen. On Jan. 2, 2018, Skiles was diagnosed with stage 3c high grade serous ovarian cancer.

The diagnosis surprised Skiles, who said she has no family history of cancer and does not have either BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutations that would make her more likely to develop cancer.

“I had absolutely no idea,” she said.

The first course of action was surgery, removing her ovaries as well as parts of her large intestine and colon. While the surgery went well, Skiles did not have a good rapport with her surgeon and wanted to seek treatment elsewhere.

Skiles’ mother-in-law, Mary Sabel, advised them to go to UW Carbone Cancer Center. Mary had been treated for breast cancer decades earlier by Dr. Paul Carbone, the center’s namesake, and held the center in high regard.

“I think her exact words were, ‘Well I don’t know why you two just didn’t go there to begin with,’” Skiles recalled with a laugh. Mary Sabel passed away in 2019.

Skiles met with Dr. Ellen Hartenbach, an expert in gynecologic cancer and chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. She immediately felt comfortable with Hartenbach and praised the respectful and attentive care she has received.

“She’s a phenomenal physician,” Skiles said. “I can’t say enough about her and the staff there, everybody is just really great.”

Skiles began chemotherapy treatments to address the cancer that couldn’t be removed surgically. She responded well and was in remission for two years and two months before her cancer reemerged in her lymphatic system.

After a second round of chemotherapy, Skiles is once again in remission. Hartenbach said Skiles is now taking a PARP inhibitor, which blocks PARP enzymes from repairing cancer cell DNA.

“It’s a maintenance therapy that’s making a huge difference in survival for ovarian cancer patients,” Hartenbach said of PARP inhibitors. “Patients can stay on it for 2 or 3 years, and it’s just making a huge difference. In the past, someone with a recurrence rarely had long-term survivorship.”

While the rate at which women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer has been steadily decreasing in the past 20 years, it is still the most fatal cancer of the female reproductive system. Risk factors include a family history of ovarian cancer, not giving birth or having fertility issues, having endometriosis and being middle aged or older.

UW Carbone researchers are focused on improving methods of early detection and treatment for women’s cancers, including ovarian, cervical, vaginal, uterine and vulvar. To raise money for those efforts and honor those impacted by gynecologic cancers, the annual Sparkle of Hope Gala will be held on Sept. 16 at the Monona Terrace.

Hartenbach said Sparke of Hope is an important event to raise awareness of women’s cancer, and the funds raised are critical component of advancing pilot research work to generate initial data that can then be used to apply for significant grants.

“Sparkle funds help our researchers in the Carbone Cancer Center make new discoveries that we can turn into improving outcomes for patients,” Hartenbach said.

Skiles said she has maintained much of her same routine throughout her treatments, including continuing to work full-time. She enjoys reading and cooking, and she and her wife travel when they have the time. Skiles said she’s grateful for her support network, which includes her family, friends and employer.

Skiles also is actively involved with the Wisconsin Ovarian Cancer Alliance, which has allowed her to mentor other women who have ovarian cancer, as well as speak to college students pursuing health care careers about her experiences as a patient.

Her main advice to those with a cancer diagnosis is to be positive, be a strong advocate for yourself, find a good support system and focus on what’s best for your needs.

“I’m of a firm mind that positive thinking results in positive outcomes,” she said. “I just really believe that. Yes, I know I have cancer, and yes, it’s a terminal illness, but I’m going to live my life 110% like I always have. I encourage anybody who has a cancer diagnosis to do the same, because I really think it helps your quality of life.”