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Cancer Survivor Story

Cancer Survivor Story

A local woman beats the odds and inspires others

The medical statistics say there's only one other like Tonya Fowler Corbett. But to her doctors, nurses and staff at the Zimmer Cancer Center, Tonya is even more rare than that.

"She's been like a gift to us," said Debbie Boedeker, a nurse case manager at New Hanover Regional Medical Center who has been part of Tonya's care from the start.

Tonya's battle with a rare, and almost always fatal, form of ovarian cancer has made medical history. While a junior in high school, a malignant tumor caused her to lose an ovary. Malignant tumors reappeared a year later on her liver and spleen. Chemotherapy twice left her with no hair.

Today she considers herself lucky. At age 23, she's been without cancer for five years and has a healthy 5-month-old baby boy. She's one of two women worldwide known to have given birth after recovering from her type of ovarian cancer. Her case is reported in April's Gynecologic Oncology, a peer review journal distributed worldwide.

"Oh Lord yes I feel lucky," she said. "All that time I was asking 'why me, why me.' Then you have him and it's all worth it."

To those who have taken care of her, Tonya is more than a miracle. She's a survivor, a fighter, a realist, and to many, their baby.

"She was just precious," Ms. Boedeker said. "Anything we could do for her to let her see how special she was to us, we were happy to do. It wasn't a chore, it was a pleasure." 

Just after her 17th birthday, Tonya complained of cramps and felt a lump in her stomach. After a pregnancy test was negative, an ultrasound technician examined her. Tonya remembers the technician suddenly turning the screen away from her. The tumor was about the size of a volleyball.

Dr. John Powell, a gynecologic oncologist with the Southeast Area Health Education Center based at New Hanover Regional Medical Center, diagnosed her with Stage III Juvenile Granulosa Cell Tumor of the Ovary, an exceedingly rare form of cancer. "Stage III" in this case meant the cancer had spread into the abdomen and was on its way to the rest of the body.

"The vast majority of patients with an advanced state of Juvenile Granulosa Cell Tumor of the Ovary die in less than a year," Dr. Powell said.

Dr. Powell, a full professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and one of the nation's leading gynecologic oncologists, has published about 100 articles in peer review journals since 1968, including about 40 in his six years at New Hanover Regional. He also reviews manuscripts for six peer review journals.
He's familiar with the other known case of a woman giving birth after this form of ovarian cancer. He treated her 15 years ago when he was practicing in Massachusetts, devising a chemotherapy treatment that had not been tried before. Until that case, all reported chemotherapy had failed.

The woman went on to have three children. When Tonya was diagnosed 11 years later, medicine had advanced and drugs had improved. Dr. Powell tried a new chemotherapy, again using drugs in combinations that hadn't been tried before.

Dr. Powell never discussed with Tonya the possibility of dying, and Tonya didn't consider it. She cried only when told she'd lose her hair.

"Taking chemo - a lot of it is in your mind," she said. "If you decide in your mind you're gonna be sick, you're gonna be sick. I made myself get up and walk."

Ms. Boedeker, then Dr. Powell's nurse, said Tonya was a model patient. She never complained, never threw a tantrum, and never missed a follow-up appointment.

Tonya graduated from high school and the next September felt a lump in her upper abdomen. A CT scan confirmed the worst - grapefruit-sized tumors on the liver and spleen. Dr. Powell operated the next day, then devised another chemo drug therapy that had never been tried.

"We were worried," Dr. Powell said. His nurses cried. This time, before beginning an aggressive chemotherapy, Tonya had to wait in the hospital a couple of weeks while recovering from pneumonia. Sometimes at night she shook so much she couldn't sleep.

Her last treatment was in February 1997. Three years later, she told Dr. Powell she was pregnant.

"I thought the chances of that were pretty remote," he said. "God's good to us sometimes."

Pregnancy presented its own battles. At 27 weeks, Tonya learned the fetus was too small. She would have to be closely monitored the rest of her pregnancy.

"That's when I really started thinking 'why me'," she said. "I can deal with myself, but can only do so much for him."

Dallas Corbett was born Nov. 27. Dr. Powell says the baby is perfectly healthy, showing no effects of the chemotherapy on this mother.

"It scares me if I get cancer, not for me, but for what it will do to him," she said.

After five years, Dr. Powell says a recurrence is unlikely. But there are no promises. Tonya says she takes it day by day, knowing every headache or stomach ache could be a tumor.

Each follow-up visit at the Cancer Center now is an opportunity for staff members to hug Tonya and fuss over the baby. Tonya feels the same admiration for her care team.

"Dr. Powell - he's like a family member," she said. "Most people don't get that close to their doctor. When I go in there, it's like a family reunion. They call me their baby."
 
Tonya graduated from Southeastern Community College with a degree in elementary school education, but is no longer sure she wants to be a teacher. She and husband John live in Currie, where she's happy being a stay-at-home mom the next few years.
 
"It makes you more thankful for things," she said.  "I don't take anything for granted. Just because I'm better now doesn't mean I won't be. Something could be taken away from you as fast as it's given to you."

 
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