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  • Grateful for each new day

    Patti BranowickiPatti Branowicki 

    On Feb. 7, 2002, it felt as though I had jumped off a cliff and was falling in slow motion, not knowing how I was going to land. That was the day I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer - a day that had started normally, like all the others in my 43 years.

    As usual, my work calendar was filled with meetings from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. I had, however, scheduled some time with my gynecologist for a "routine visit" to assess some intermittent abdominal pain that I had been experiencing. Upon examination, my doctor said she thought she felt something and that an ultrasound was needed. Despite her visible concern, I was convinced it was nothing to worry about. After all, I had never been seriously ill before, and there was no history of cancer in my family. So I returned to Children's for one more meeting before the test.

    After the ultrasound, I was told to return immediately to my gynecologist's office. The waiting room was quiet, and I was quickly escorted into an office. A sensation of impending doom emerged. My doctor asked me to call my husband, but because he was at least an hour away, I asked her to give me the news. As she did, I could see her speaking but could not hear what she was saying. I believe that our brains have a way of accepting only information that we can handle, and I could no longer handle what I was hearing. I called Susan Shaw, director of clinical operations at Children's and a friend and colleague, to help me hear the words most people fear: "It is likely you have cancer."

    I was in total shock. Susan and I returned to Children's and immediately called Stephen Sallan, MD, Dana-Farber's chief of staff. He said that if it was confirmed that I had ovarian cancer, Ursula Matulonis, MD, at DFCI was the physician he would recommend. The thought of being treated anywhere other than the Institute never crossed my mind.

    The surgery I had several days later confirmed I had cancer and that it was Stage III, which means the disease had spread beyond my ovaries. I underwent a complete hysterectomy and entered a new world filled with the symptoms of surgical menopause and the worries and physical ramifications of cancer treatment. Within one week, I had enrolled in a clinical trial run by Dr. Matulonis and received my first dose of chemotherapy. The next seven months were filled with nine cycles of chemotherapy using three different drug regimens.

    My co-workers and supervisors at Children's and Dana-Farber were, and continue to be, amazing. I remember telling Eileen Sporing, chief nursing officer at Children's, that things did not look good and that I wasn't sure when or if I'd be back. "You will be back," she stated without hesitating. "I'll hold your job for as long as it takes, but you will be back." Or David G. Nathan, MD, president emeritus at Dana-Farber, advising me, "Don't look right, don't look left, just keep your eyes focused on the goal. We need you back."

    During my darkest moments, these words, as well as the hundreds of cards, get-well wishes, phone calls, and gifts, were what kept me focused. Everyone has been phenomenal. I am honored to be associated with this network of people.

    I took some time off at the beginning of my treatment because I understood it was going to be a rigorous protocol. I had planned to be out for at least six months. A couple of weeks after the operation, however, people started calling me about work-related issues and sending memos and documents home for my review. By May, I decided to return to the office on a part-time basis, taking work home when I could or having it sent home when possible. Returning to work was truly the best medicine. It helped me make the transition from "cancer patient" to "person with cancer."

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