What it’s like to fight ovarian cancer during a pandemic

Diana Dreyer navigated surgery, chemo, quarantine with family and Sanford Health

In a span of three days, life completely changed for Diana Dreyer and her family.

“From being diagnosed at 1:00 p.m. on Tuesday, I was in Friday afternoon having surgery,” said Dreyer.

In between that three-day span, Dreyer knew she had cancer, but didn’t know what kind.

“They were going back and forth between ovarian and melanoma,” she said. “There was one tumor that they couldn’t quite get a good biopsy. In order to do that, they were going to have to put me under. They decided to get the biopsy and do surgery to remove tumors at the same time they were in there.

“They already knew I had two baseball size tumors inside me, one of them being on my ovary. I went in on Friday and had complete hysterectomy.”

Moving fast, and with diligence

Everything happened so fast, Dreyer barely had time to think about it — a testament to Sanford’s quality of care, she said.

“They got the majority of cancer out of me within a couple of days of being diagnosed. That was huge for me.”

But, even after the surgery, Dreyer still faced a frightening diagnosis.

“My doctor, Dr. Maria Bell, got the biopsy she needed after the surgery. She gave me her diagnosis, stage 4 ovarian cancer, and her treatment plan. In my mind, stage 4 ovarian cancer had always been a death sentence, and I was terrified.

“Dr. Bell sent it off to the Mayo Clinic right away. They concurred with everything. The diagnosis, the treatment plan, everything. I did not need to go get a second opinion. They did it for me.”

Ovarian cancer: Symptoms and why it’s hard to diagnose

Along with sending the results out for a second opinion, Dreyer’s doctor also presented them to Sanford Health’s tumor board. Diana’s daughter, Sanford Health marketing analysis manager Heather Krause, said that process was helpful.

“That group of physicians also provided kind of like a second, third, fourth, fifth opinion from within our system to reaffirm,” Krause said. “It was almost like my mom got an internal second opinion, and then an external second opinion, which was very comforting as a family.

“It doesn’t leave any wiggle room for you to wonder if you should be going somewhere else. They took care of that for us right off the bat.”

‘They were there every step of the way’

While Dreyer and her family felt that peace of mind, a substantial cloud of uncertainty still surrounded them: navigating through everything in the midst of a pandemic.

The majority of the cancer was removed during surgery. But, Dreyer still had to go through chemotherapy — and she had no idea how it would look.

Because the diagnosis, procedure, and chemotherapy all started in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic first started and little was known, every time Diana had to go to the hospital, she had to go alone.

And that was the scariest part.

“Going into surgery by myself, that was terrifying. It was major surgery. I was in the hospital all by myself. Nobody could visit me. Basically, I was at the mercy of the nurses, and putting all my trust in Dr. Bell that she knew what she was doing.

“Waking up after surgery and not having a family member there to hold your hand or to reassure you. It was scary,” she said.

But, Diana knew these precautions were needed. And, in a way, she was comforted by the Sanford’s exclusivity, because she knew the safety of patients was Dr. Bell’s, and everyone at Sanford Health’s, top priority.

“Our care team has responded by switching to video visits when feasible, limiting the number of visitors who can accompany the patient, and mandatory masking for staff and patients,” said Dr. Bell, a Sanford Health specialist in cancer of the female reproductive organs.

Related: Sanford Health lifts some visitor restrictions

Even when Diana couldn’t have visitors, she found support and consistency through Dr. Bell, her nurses, and care givers at Sanford Health.

She says she was only in the hospital for roughly 24 hours, “but that’s 24 scary hours.”

“There’s prep time when I get there. Several hours go by before they even take me into surgery. They were so comforting and did everything they could to make me feel comfortable and less anxious about going through it alone.

“They were there every step of the way, they knew how scared I was, and they knew that because I couldn’t have anybody there, it just made it everything much harder.”

Family quarantine

For a family as tight-knit as Dreyer’s, not being able to be together at the hospital to support each other in person was practically torture.

After learning of Dreyer’s diagnosis, Krause and Dreyer, both self-described “huggers,” didn’t know if it was safe to hug each other.

“I got a call from my mom saying she had cancer. I rushed across town, I threw my mask on, and I walked inside her house to go give her a hug. She kind of paused, and we were both wondering, ‘Can I even hug you because I could be a risk for you?'” said Krause.

“We decided to do one quick hug, and that’s all we got.”

Read more: Managing mental well-being after COVID-19 quarantine

But, Krause and her siblings knew how much Dreyer needed to see them, and they needed to see her. Krause, and every single family member, went into a two-week quarantine to at least be able to see Diana in person, but masked, and 6 feet apart.

However, the two-week quarantine turned into a three-month quarantine.

They did this so they’d still be able to see and support Dreyer.

“We didn’t go anywhere, we didn’t see anybody, and we didn’t go into our offices. We had a very close-knit circle of safe people, so that we could all physically be there for my mom in addition to mentally being there for her,” said Krause.

Her family did this to keep Diana safe. Dr. Bell adds that precautions of this magnitude can be very helpful to keep any cancer patient safe during the pandemic.

“I tell patients that a cancer patient, even one in remission, will not do well with COVID,” said Dr. Bell.

Krause describes her mother as the matriarch and caregiver of the family. Dreyer naturally takes care of whoever when they need it.

In the middle of her chemotherapy treatments, Dreyer’s oldest son, Krause’s brother, tested positive for COVID-19.

And Dreyer couldn’t do anything about it.

“She couldn’t take care of him. So, at the time we were not only dealing with my mom’s cancer, but my brother ended up getting COVID and going into tachycardia, all throughout my mom recovering from surgery,” Krause said.

‘I almost didn’t go in’

Dreyer finished her last round of chemotherapy Aug. 26. But in July, she got very, very good news.

“That was a good day,” said Dreyer.

“I had a PET scan and blood tests done to determine my CA score. Dr. Bell said the cancer was almost gone. The tumors she couldn’t quite get out during the surgery had trickled down to almost nothing. I didn’t need another major surgery that she was going to do.

“I went into my next three chemo treatments knowing that I was almost cancer free at that point. Dr. Bell even said I wouldn’t need another PET scan,” she added.

Your health matters: Don’t delay your care or screenings

But before all of this happened, Dreyer said despite her initial symptoms worsening, she almost didn’t go in for her initial check-up for two reasons: she was taking care of her husband, who had both hip and knee replacements, and there was still so little known about the pandemic.

She stresses that despite the coronavirus, it’s safe to seek care at Sanford. And, if you think something’s wrong, don’t hesitate to go in.

“We know our bodies, and we know when something’s wrong. I ignored my symptoms for a while because I was taking care of my husband. I would tell people don’t blow off a simple symptom thinking that it’s nothing.

“If I wouldn’t have ignored my first symptoms, I could have been diagnosed three months earlier.”

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Posted In Cancer, Cancer Screenings, Cancer Treatments, Imaging, Women's