My Personalized Journey with Ovarian Cancer


Looking back, my journey with cancer really began when I was 40, a year after my paternal grandmother passed away. That was about the same time I first started thinking that breast cancer might be hereditary.

My grandmother had a history of breast cancer, so I looked at my husband and said, “Oh my gosh, what happens if I get breast cancer? How will you take care of the kids?”

I was being treated by a breast surgeon and told her, “I want to know if I’m going to get breast cancer.” She had me fill out a questionnaire and said I wasn’t at risk, so I moved on. But, knowing my grandmother’s history, I always felt like cancer was going to be part of my journey as well.

In July 2010, at age 48, I started to feel like something was taking root in my abdomen, in addition to being extremely tired and emotional. My doctor did an ultrasound and found some abnormalities in the shape of my ovaries. He requested some bloodwork and my level of CA-125, a cancer biomarker, came back at 216 (normal is 0-35), so my doctor recommended a hysterectomy. After getting second and third opinions, I decided to get the hysterectomy. When I woke up from surgery, my doctor told me I had stage three ovarian cancer.

I was shocked. I knew breast cancer affected young women, but I thought ovarian cancer was a disease of older women.

It was then that I discovered there was a genetic connection between breast and ovarian cancer, so I told my oncologist I had to find out whether I had a BRCA gene mutation. Having two daughters really spurred me to want to make sure they could take the appropriate steps to reduce their cancer risk. I got tested and discovered I have a BRCA1 gene mutation. I also learned that there was testing that could look at the genetic makeup of my tumor to help determine what kind of cancer treatment would be best for me.

Being BRCA1-positive actually turned out to be a positive thing, since it meant my cancer responded well to platinum-based chemotherapy drugs. Knowing that I have a BRCA mutation also means that, if the cancer recurs, there are treatment options available to me that are targeted specifically at BRCA mutations, like the newly-approved Lynparza® (olaparib).

Lots of people talk about personalized medicine. But to me, personalized medicine means that every patient is a person, not a statistic, and that’s what I think we all need. Each person needs something different because we each have a different genetic blueprint, and our treatment needs to address that blueprint, not just the disease itself. Looking at the genetics changes how the tumor is going to be treated. Over the past four years, I’ve seen how treating a specific patient and a specific tumor with a specific treatment has given hope and longevity to many of my friends with ovarian cancer.

Ever since I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, my passion has been the foundation that I started with three other ovarian cancer survivors, which is called Be the Difference Foundation. We are dedicated to helping women in their fight against ovarian cancer and improving their chances of survival. We hope that ovarian cancer becomes a curable or chronic disease, instead of a death sentence, and the only way that’s going to happen is if companion diagnostic companies like Myriad and pharmaceutical companies work together to develop individualized treatments for individual patients. Before I was diagnosed, I couldn’t tell you what my passion was, but I can tell you that’s what it is now: To be a catalyst for a cure.

Julie Shrell

To learn about the journey of another ovarian cancer survivor, read Katya’s story.