March 18, 2021

One Year Ago: Cancer Patient Reflects on Surgery at the Beginning of the Pandemic

Madison, Wisconsin - A year ago today, Emily Tropp was at UW Health preparing for surgery at the UW Carbone Cancer Center. At the age of 43, she'd recently been diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer at SwedishAmerican Regional Cancer Center in Rockford, Ill.

It was scary enough to get the diagnosis and be undergoing surgery, but this was also just days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and much of the country was now staying home whenever possible.

"It felt like every time I saw my medical team, they were wearing more PPE," said Tropp. "I was hoping to have my support system of friends and family with me, but my friends ended up holding signs outside my window instead of being at my bedside."

In more ways than one, Tropp's cancer journey ran alongside the pandemic. She was diagnosed with cancer on Dec. 23, 2019, the same time stories started to emerge about a new virus circulating abroad. She started chemotherapy at SwedishAmerican Regional Cancer Center in January, and on Feb. 7, just two days after UW Health confirmed the first COVID-19 case in Wisconsin, UW Health also confirmed Tropp had the BRCA1 cancer gene.

On March 17, 2020, Tropp underwent a surgery that included an appendectomy, a hysterectomy, removal of omentum, a portion of her diaphragm and cardiophrenic lymph nodes, and removal of enlarged pelvic lymph nodes. Surgery was long and extensive but ended with the removal of all visible cancer. It was performed by the surgical oncologist who was caring for her since her diagnosis, Dr. Ahmed Al-Niaimi, director of surgical quality outcome for the department of OBGYN at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

"For cases like Emily's, it was imperative to begin comprehensive treatment, including surgery, as soon as possible regardless of the circumstances happening around us," said Dr. Al-Niaimi. "But those early days were surreal. Things were changing by the day as we worked hard to keep all our patients safe from a virus we still knew very little about."

Tropp's chemotherapy continued through May and in June of 2020 she was declared NED (No Evidence of Disease) and has maintained that status.

"Dr. Al-Niaimi saved my life and I don't have words to describe my gratitude. I'm so grateful for his expertise and his care."

Experts at UW Carbone urge the community not to delay cancer screenings and to schedule routine mammograms and colonoscopies as soon as possible, and to contact your doctor if you are experiencing troubling or unexplained symptoms.


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