Kate Fagan overcame advanced ovarian cancer during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic
Kate Fagan, a healthcare lawyer, was part of the legal team that brought gynecologic oncology services to Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie, NY, several years ago. She never expected to need those services at a critical time when traveling for cancer care would have been a huge hardship.
Signs of ovarian cancer
At the beginning of 2020, Kate started feeling bloated, which was unusual for her.
“I would normally walk it off, but the feeling would not go away. I felt uncomfortable and was self-conscious about how I looked,” said Kate, senior associate general counsel at Nuvance Health.
Kate saw her primary care provider, who recommended she have an abdominal CT scan.
Kate had the CT scan on March 18, 2020, at Nuvance Health Imaging and Radiology at Kingston — just days before New York and Connecticut started shutting down because of COVID-19.
Kate’s primary care provider called her that same day with the heavy news she had two large masses in her abdomen.
“I was incredulous and asked, ‘What does it mean?’ ” Kate said. “My primary care provider said it probably meant I had ovarian cancer.” She recommended Kate follow up with a gynecologic oncologist.
“I am the type of person to search for symptoms at the first sign of a runny nose, headache or cough and assume I have the worst illness on the list. For reasons I cannot explain, I did not do that when I started to not feel well this time, so I was especially surprised that I might have ovarian cancer,” Kate said.
Ovarian cancer treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic
Kate next met with Dr. Joyce Barlin, a gynecologic oncologist.
To protect patients and staff from COVID-19, Nuvance Health had to limit visitation and the number of people in waiting rooms at that time.
“I am usually OK doing things on my own. But it was difficult to sit by myself in my car in the parking lot outside The Dyson Center for Cancer Care before my first appointment,” Kate said.
“I needed further testing, but Dr. Barlin was pretty certain I had stage 4 ovarian cancer,” Kate said.
“It was devastating news to get during an especially chaotic time,” she said.
As the entire health system came together to protect everyone from COVID-19, Kate’s work responsibilities escalated. Her daughter, Chloe, had to come home from college and her son, Cole, had to stay home from high school.
Kate first thought about her kids.
“I wanted to make sure my kids would be OK and decided to focus on doing whatever was necessary to treat the cancer,” she said.
“One of my biggest fears was that COVID-19 would cause delays in my care,” Kate said. “Dr. Barlin was phenomenal. She immediately had a plan and we got started right away, which was a big comfort to me.”
Dr. Patrick Timmins, a gynecologic oncologist, was also a great comfort to Kate.
“When I was first diagnosed, Dr. Timmins held my hand and said, ‘Our job is to get you back to where you were before cancer,’ and that is exactly what they did,” Kate said.
Kate had a procedure called paracentesis to drain the fluid from her abdominal area. An interventional radiologist also took a biopsy of the tumor tissue, which confirmed Kate had cancer.
Ovarian cancer happens when abnormal cells grow out of control in the ovaries, fallopian tubes or peritoneum. Kate’s cancer originated in the fallopian tubes.
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“I physically felt like I had gained weight because of the bloating. But after the paracentesis, I had lost 35 pounds. I realized I must have not been eating much,” Kate said.
Chemotherapy for ovarian cancer
To prepare for a potential surge in patients from COVID-19, Nuvance Health moved the entire infusion center from The Dyson Center for Cancer Care at Vassar Brothers Medical Center to Northern Dutchess Hospital in just a couple days.
Kate started chemotherapy on April 3, 2020, the first day the services moved from Poughkeepsie to Rhinebeck, NY.
“As a patient, getting chemotherapy in Rhinebeck instead of Poughkeepsie was seamless, which was even more impressive knowing what an effort it was by staff to make that move,” said Kate, who has lived in Rhinebeck for 25 years.
Kate had four chemotherapy infusions to shrink the tumors before she could have surgery to remove them. The ovarian cancer had also spread to her lungs.
Kate had been short of breath but said, “It never occurred to me that it could be cancer.”
Kate said she feels “fortunate” she did not have many side effects from chemotherapy, except for losing her hair and fatigue.
“At that time, I did not share what was going on with many people. But it became obvious when I lost my hair,” Kate said. “I could not go shopping for a wig because of the pandemic. My hairdresser ordered one for me, but I had to figure out how to wear it.”
“I was working remotely, and the wig would slide around on my head during meetings! I quickly decided to go bald. My colleagues of course started noticing I had a different hairstyle,” Kate laughed.
The chemotherapy shrunk the tumors and treated the cancer that had spread to the lungs.
Surgery for ovarian cancer
On July 8, 2020, Kate had surgery at Vassar Brothers Medical Center.
During the tumor debulking surgery, Dr. Barlin performed a complete hysterectomy to remove the uterus, cervix, fallopian tubes and ovaries through a very large incision in Kate’s abdomen. She also removed the omentum.
Visitation was still limited, so Kate was especially appreciative of the staff, who she said were “phenomenal.”
“As caregivers, they had to adapt to extreme circumstances while simultaneously stepping into the supportive role visitors would have normally played,” Kate said. “It was a surreal experience to go through cancer during the pandemic.”
After surgery, Kate stayed in the hospital for a few days before recovering at home.
“I was up and walking shortly after surgery and was able to go right back to work,” Kate said.
Kate recovered well from surgery and then had four more chemotherapy treatments she completed in October 2020.
Through genetic testing, Kate learned she has a hereditary predisposition to certain cancers, including breast cancer and ovarian cancer. For two years, she took a PARP inhibitor, which is a targeted maintenance treatment for types of cancer caused by an inherited gene mutation.
Living past ovarian cancer
Three years later, Kate is still N.E.D. — a cancer term that means no evidence of disease.
Kate’s priority was being able to spend more time with her children, and that is exactly what she has been doing, including milestones like high school and college graduations.
Kate loves traveling and went to Portugal with Chloe after she graduated from Northeastern University. Kate is hoping to plan a trip with Cole after he graduates from Boston College.
Kate also enjoys giving back to her community. She volunteers at the Olana State Historic Site. She is also on the Board of Directors for Walkway Over the Hudson.
Kate said there were some “silver linings” to dealing with cancer during the pandemic, like being able to work remotely.
“Work was a great distraction from cancer, and my colleagues and the legal team were awesome,” Kate said. “There was so much going on at work, and we were all working together.”
“My kids and family were also very supportive,” said Kate, who has 11 brothers and sisters.
Kate is grateful for her care team and the advances in cancer treatments.
“If I had this diagnosis 10 years ago, I might not still be here. But there have been dramatic improvements in cancer treatments,” Kate said. “It is not just that my care team saved me from dying; they brought me back to where I was before I got sick, and I feel great,” Kate said.
Kate said, “Cancer is frequently on my mind, and I wonder if it will come back.”
She said she gets “scanxiety” after imaging checkups and feels nervous about getting bloodwork results. She combats these feelings by focusing on “living life” with help from her kids, friends, family, and two rescue dogs and a cat.
“They are what get me up in the morning,” Kate said.
Gynecologic oncology services in the Hudson Valley
Kate decided to share her experience for people to know “how lucky we are to have access to this care so close to home,” she said.
“About eight years ago, I was part of the team that negotiated bringing gynecologic oncology to Poughkeepsie. Our health system knew it was important to make sure women had access to the best possible gynecologic cancer care nearby, so they did not need to travel,” Kate said. “Nothing drove that home more than personally needing this care during a pandemic.”
“If we did not have these services in Poughkeepsie and Rhinebeck during the pandemic, my 19-year-old daughter would have had to drive for hours and then sit in the car waiting for me during my treatments,” Kate said.
“It was not just the proximity that mattered but the fact that I had 100% confidence in my care team,” Kate said.
Disclaimer: Outcomes from cancer vary from person to person. No individual results should be seen as typical.