One Woman's Experience

Author Emily Dickinson once wrote "hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul-- and sings the tune without words and never stops-- at all." Elaine Lerner was not short of hope by any means after winning her challenging fight with ovarian cancer nearly two years ago. Now, she lives to inspire other women stricken with the fatal illness who wage their own struggles for life.
Karmel Melamed

A second chance
Lerner and her husband Arthur Schreiber, both Beverly Hills, California residents shared the holidays this year with friends and family, giving special thanks for her second chance at life.

"I thank God every day, I'm very grateful to be here with my children and grandchildren during the holidays," says Lerner. "I've been given another chance and I'm smelling the roses and enjoying every minute of it."

Yet life was not so pleasant for Lerner in October 2001. Her world came crashing down after she paid visits to her doctors only to discover the grim reality that she had stage 3-C ovarian cancer, a progressive form of the fatal disease.

"I had unusual stomach pain, cramps and bloating and it's not something you typically run to the doctor when you have, but my pain wasn't something that went away," Lerner says. "It's very difficult to detect ovarian cancer and nothing originally showed up after I had a visit to my gynecologist and also had a colonoscopy."

Eventually doctors revealed the devastating news to Lerner, one in which no one can be prepared for. Lerner developed ovarian cancer, which had spread to the intestinal areas of her body and had begun spreading to her other organs.

"My greatest fear was that this was a death sentence," Lerner says. "After I spoke with my doctor, she said it was not a death sentence and I just broke down and cried on the telephone."

Six days following her diagnosis, Lerner had surgery to remove the cancer followed by six months of aggressive chemotherapy. "It was a really severe form of cancer and I also developed a complication in my colon because of the cancer. Afterward, I had to have a colostomy bag for nine months because of this complication," she says.

Undeterred by her constant struggle with cancer, Lerner says she fought for every breath and every day of her life -- determined to meet her unborn grandchildren and was inspired by her very close relationship with her doctor, Beth Karlan, a gynecological oncologist at Los Angeles' Cedars-Sinai Cancer Center.

"Not one time did I ever think that I wouldn't make it," says Lerner. "That woman [Karlan] is the most loving and amazing person I have ever met. When she talks to you she makes you believe you're the most important person in the world."

Her victory
A variety of factors attributed to Lerner's successful victory over her ovarian cancer, says Dr Karlan.

"She had an advanced stage of ovarian cancer and in general it has a rather grim outlook," says Dr Karlan. "The combination of expert care, optimal surgery and state-of-the-art chemotherapy, all contributed to her recovery."

Karlan said that new medical treatments and research have enabled more than 80 percent of women with ovarian cancer to go into remission with an excellent quality of life.

"The real breakthroughs are in the improved methods of early detection and prevention [of cancers]," Dr Karlan says. Additional programs developed to give women with cancer the will to continue fighting their fatal disease has also prolonged the lives of many cancer patients, she adds.

"The survival rates have doubled also because of programs such as the patient writing a journal, the 'look good, feel good' program where a make-up artist comes in to give cancer patients a makeover because we tend to feel better if we look good, and providing better individual care for cancer patients, says Dr Karlan.

Although she did not participate in any of the emotional programs offered for cancer patients, Lerner says the strong support of her family and close friends were key to keeping her optimistic while she received her nine-hour chemotherapy sessions.

"My best friend Sharon Hyatt would sit through chemo with me and we'd just laugh and have fun, then she would take me home. She was incredible," says Lerner.

Hyatt, a Los Angeles county resident and near 30-year friend of Lerner's, says she was surprised at Lerner's remarkable will and positive attitude during her chemotherapy treatments. "She was just an amazing person during the whole thing, we would have lunch and it was like a little party there while she was having chemo," says Hyatt. Lerner not only drew from her own personal strength during her battle with cancer, but also encouraged other cancer patients at the hospital to keep their spirits up, she adds.

"There were people out of remission getting chemo and they would walk by and she would speak with them and give them hope to fight on," says Hyatt.

This past April, Hyatt's husband was diagnosed with lung cancer and her close friend Elaine Lerner has been returning the favor by being at Hyatt's side during this difficult time.

Lerner says she has not only been giving emotional support to Hyatt, but gives encouragement to many of Dr Karlan's other cancer patients and is involved in a women's workshop at Los Angeles' Cedars-Sinai Hospital that makes knitted hats for battered children and children with life threatening diseases.

"What I want to be able to do is to be there for support to them [cancer patients] and make them laugh," says Lerner.

The American Cancer Society reports that ovarian cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women and is responsible for more deaths than any other gynecological cancer in women. Close to 80 percent of ovarian cancer patients survive one year after diagnosis, and more than 50 percent survive longer than five years after diagnosis. Yet only 25 percent of all ovarian cancers are found at an early stage.

According to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, ovarian cancer occurs in one out of 57 women with more than 25,000 women in the US being diagnosed with this form of cancer and more than 14,000 women in American women dying of the disease this year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that common symptoms of ovarian cancer include bloating and abdominal pain therefore making ovarian cancer difficult to detect in its early stages. Currently 5 percent of all cancer deaths among women in the US are from ovarian


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