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,"
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,"
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.