When Adelina King reflects on her ovarian cancer journey — one that’s taken her from the brink of death to remission — she jokingly calls herself “Wonder Woman.”
And the experimental drugs that keep her disease stable are “wonder pills,” she says.
Thanks to research, more women are finding themselves in King’s shoes with an improved prognosis due to newer therapies. For decades the five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer was about 20 percent, but in recent years it’s crept up to about 50 percent. Wilmot’s Gynecologic Oncology program Targeted Therapeutics Laboratory for Gynecologic Cancers is led by Richard Moore, M.D.
Turning ovarian cancer into a treatable, chronic disease, with a full range of clinical trial options for early stage, late stage, and recurrent cancer, is important because the vast majority of women are diagnosed when the cancer has already spread, putting a cure out of reach.
“I’ve survived and I’m okay,’ says King, 58, who lives in Endwell, N.Y., near Binghamton. “It seems like kind of a miracle.”
Ovarian cancer is often called a "silent killer” because of vague symptoms and a lack of widely available screening. In King’s case, she was living on a U.S. military base in Japan with her husband, Martin, a Navy Master Chief. She had been experiencing intermittent, minor hip pain. Then on Aug. 23, 2014, a sudden, sharp pain stabbed her right lower belly and she thought it must be appendicitis.
At the emergency room at the naval base a physical examination and imaging scans revealed a large tumor. The following days became a whirlwind of plans to find the best medical care possible, given their circumstances living overseas. But during this time her health began to decline rapidly because a blood clot had formed in her leg, broken off, and traveled to the chest — a complication in cancer patients known as deep vein thrombosis. By the time she was admitted to NTT Medical Center in Tokyo 11 days later on Sept. 3, doctors told her that she may not live another week.
“I felt like I was dying,” King recalls. “I told God: ‘Just take care of me.’ ”
With aggressive treatment, however, she was stabilized and the doctors at NTT recommended immediate cancer surgery. The operation lasted more than six hours, as surgeons removed as much of the cancer as possible and several organs from her abdomen. The next step was chemotherapy, which she received every three weeks for 17 months.
By early 2016 she was feeling well again, and her husband retired from the Navy. They moved “home” to upstate New York, King says.
King was being monitored at Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton, and in April of 2017 her doctor discovered that cancer had returned. She was referred her to Wilmot, where she met Moore, who asked her to consider a clinical study that evaluates the effectiveness of two new drugs, cediranib and olaparib.
“They need to pursue these kinds of medications to help other women like me,” King says. “The ‘wonder pills’ made me well and after a bit of time adjusting, I feel okay. I do gardening and household chores, like a normal person. I’m active and I walk my dog.”
Moore’s research lab is investigating several aspects of ovarian cancer. He helped to develop a Food and Drug Administration-approved blood test to quickly distinguish between ovarian cysts and cancerous legions. And work led by Rachael Turner, M.D., Ph.D., is seeking therapies that harness the immune system to keep cancer at bay.
What advice does King, a 4-year survivor, have for other women with advanced ovarian cancer?
“Accept the facts, be strong, have faith and hope — and remember that without your medications and your doctors, you are nothing,” she says. “I am so grateful that I found Dr. Moore and Dr. Turner. I owe them.”