Reaching more women: A story of healing after gynecologic cancer

Reaching more women: A story of healing after gynecologic cancer

Lisa Direzze's story was published in the Winter 2021 edition of Providence Health Matters.

 

Key takeaways:

  • The symptoms of ovarian cancer are so vague that they are often confused with other problems.

  • When a woman discovers she has ovarian, uterine or another gynecologic cancer, she needs every source of help to heal.

  • Lisa Direzze shares her story of healing and hope after treatment from Providence Holy Cross Medical Center and City of Hope.

[5 MIN READ]

Reaching More Women

When a woman discovers she has ovarian, uterine or another gynecologic cancer, she needs every source of help to heal. And that’s what Providence Holy Cross Medical Center and partner City of Hope aim to give her.

Lisa Direzze knew something was very wrong. “My stomach was bloated and hard; I looked like I was six months pregnant,” recalls Direzze, who lives in Woodland Hills. “I had symptoms before, but I overlooked them. I thought, I’m tired, I have three kids, and there’s COVID.”

“I had symptoms before, but I overlooked them. I thought, I’m tired, I have three kids, and there’s COVID," Direzze said.

But in late May 2020, Direzze couldn’t wait any longer to get answers. She headed to the ER at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, where she underwent a battery of tests. By the next day, she was sitting in the office of gynecologic oncologist Wei-Chien M. Lin, MD, who broke the devastating news to her: She had ovarian cancer. “He said, ‘We gotta act fast, this is aggressive,’” remembers Direzze, who was 48 at the time. The following Friday she was in surgery. Afterward, Dr. Lin, who practices at Providence Holy Cross and City of Hope, told Direzze the operation had gone very well.

“He said, ‘Lisa, I got all of the disease out,’ ” she says nearly five months later. “And I’ve been doing good. I was really, really happy with him.”

Types of gynecologic cancers 

Gynecologic cancer is any of five types of cancer that start in a woman’s reproductive system—ovarian, uterine, cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. This quintet of cancers can greatly vary in regards to their risk factors, symptoms, treatment and screen methodology. “Cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancers are the least common,” notes Maria C.B. de Leon-Hsu, MD, a gynecologic oncology surgeon at Holy Cross Medical Center and City of Hope. “Pap smears screen for cervical cancer. High-risk HPV is the number-one cause of cervical cancer, and there’s a vaccine for young people to help protect them against HPV. This vaccine prevents them from developing cervical cancer.” Uterine cancer is the most common of the five gynecologic cancers, with about 66,000 new cases yearly in the U.S. “Thankfully, it’s often caught early. Postmenopausal bleeding is a common symptom,” says Dr. de Leon-Hsu.

“Because we tend to diagnose gynecologic cancer early, at Providence Holy Cross we can perform minimally invasive surgery using the robotic platform,” Dr. de Leon-Hsu explains. “That means less scarring, less pain, less blood loss and a shorter hospital stay.”

The procedure typically requires only four or five small incisions—one for the camera to guide the surgeon and the others to insert surgical instruments.

“Because we tend to diagnose [gynecologic cancer] early, at Holy Cross we can do minimally invasive surgery using the robotic platform.”

Ovarian cancer, the deadliest of the gynecologic cancers, is often lethal because its symptoms are so vague that they are confused with other problems. “By the time patients are diagnosed, the ovarian cancer is usually already at an advanced stage,” says Dr. de Leon-Hsu. That’s when the full range of Providence Holy Cross Medical Center’s resources is pressed into service. “Gynecologic cancer patients in the hospital have a nurse navigator to help them at Providence Holy Cross and City of Hope,” Dr. de Leon-Hsu notes. “After surgery, I refer patients to a medical oncologist for adjuvant chemotherapy, and after they complete their chemotherapy treatment, I continue to see them in the clinic for surveillance follow-up visits."

An example of treatment

Four weeks after her surgery, Direzze started chemotherapy—a regimen of six rounds of treatment, every 21 days. She also met with a genetic counselor who tested 85 different genes for mutations that would indicate whether she was at higher risk of a recurrence. “The results all came back negative,” says Direzze. “Dr. Lin and [medical oncologist] and Dr. Thomas Joseph wanted me to have the results to determine my treatment for the next five years. It’s looking like it’s not genetics that caused my cancer.” Gynecologic oncologists are a bit different from other cancer doctors, in ways that are a boon to their patients. “What’s special about us is that we perform the surgery to remove the cancer and then we oversee chemotherapy and subsequently follow our patients after completion of all treatments.

“We can provide almost everything our patients need, from surgery at Holy Cross to chemotherapy at City of Hope," says Dr. de Leon-Hsu.

This ultimately leads to meaningful lifelong relationships with our patients,” explains Dr. de Leon-Hsu. “We can provide almost everything our patients need, from surgery at Holy Cross to chemotherapy at City of Hope." Although Direzze, who continues to do well in treatment, hasn’t yet used all the resources available to cancer patients at Providence Holy Cross, she knows where to go if she or her family need help. “My doctors, the nurses, have been a wonderful support, so caring,” she says, her eyes welling up with emotion as she talks. “I couldn’t have asked for a better team. I’m grateful for everything they’ve done for me. Dr. Lin gave me a second chance. I’m blessed to have Dr. Lin and Dr. Joseph as my team of doctors.”

To schedule a screening or for more information on our cancer program and survivorship support services at Providence Holy Cross, call 844-987-0486.

We've got you: Giving cancer survivors a safety net 

As anyone who’s had cancer will tell you, it’s like flipping a switch. One day, you’re living your life. The next, you’ve been told you have cancer—and that you’ll need lots of help getting through it. “That’s why in 2020 we officially started the Survivorship Support Services program,” explains Tricia Eugenio, RN, an oncology program nurse navigator at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center. “We had been providing the pieces, and now we have under one umbrella all the support services a cancer patient may need.” Much as her title implies, Eugenio helps each patient navigate her way through care. “I insert myself for whatever they need—care coordination between providers, providing education on their treatment plan, or answering questions about insurance,” she says. “Just knowing that you have one person who knows how to navigate the system or how to connect you to the right person has the most impact on a cancer patient.” The medical center’s survivorship program has received accreditation from the American College of Surgeons’ Commission on Cancer as well. The services at Holy Cross Medical Center’s program also include nutrition counseling, support groups for patients and caregivers, pain management, lymphedema therapy, palliative care, and financial counseling.

“Just knowing that you have one person who knows how to navigate the system or how to connect you to the right person has the most impact on a cancer patient," says Tricia Eugenio, RN.

A number of other complementary therapies are also offered, such as meditation, guided imagery and stress management, along with other holistic therapies like acupuncture, massage, sound healing and yoga, including genetic counseling, are provided by our partner Roy and Patricia Disney Family Cancer Center, located at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center, in Burbank. “In the old days, we didn’t call someone a survivor until they reached the five-year milestone,” says Eugenio, who has been an oncology nurse for 23 years.

Now you’re considered a survivor from the time of your cancer diagnosis through the rest of your life. In keeping with the Holy Cross promise of 'Know me, care for me, ease my way,' the care doesn’t end once your treatment is over. We’re here as long as you need it.

Read Lisa Direzze's full story.

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Find a doctor

To learn more about the cancer program and survivorship support services program at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, call 844-987-0486 or click here.

To explore services at the Disney Family Cancer Center, call 818-748-4900 or click here.

Access a full range of healthcare services through Providence Express Care Virtual. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory or search for one in your area.

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