Living Well with Ovarian Cancer: Christine’s Palliative Care Story

Listen to the first episode of our new podcast series, “A Quality Life,” featuring Christine’s story:

No matter who you are, receiving a diagnosis of a serious illness can be life-altering and difficult emotionally. When Christine Buehlmann was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she saw her life change radically.

“I am usually a very positive person and it was so overwhelming that I was going into a very deep depression,” she said. “It dramatically changed my life and I was completely devastated.”

Prior to her diagnosis, Christine valued her job as a physical therapist who worked with cancer patients. Yet as the symptoms of both her ovarian cancer and the chemotherapy to treat it worsened, she found that she could no longer trust her body. “I was not able to work and I could not even cross the street. I would look at other people and they were so fast that sometimes the light would change red and I was not even finished crossing yet.”

According to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, there were 21,980 estimated cases of ovarian cancer in 2014. For patients with ovarian cancer and their families, the diagnosis itself can be challenging enough, let alone dealing with the stress and symptoms of the disease and treatment.

But Christine knew something that many patients don’t: there is a way to live better with serious illness. She asked for palliative care.

Palliative care is specialized medical care for people with serious illnesses. It focuses on providing patients with relief from the symptoms and stress of a serious illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family.

For Christine, maintaining her chemotherapy regimen was a priority, but so was allaying the symptoms that it caused.  “She was having complaints specifically of worsening migraines, constipation and nausea, mostly all related to the chemotherapy regime that she was on and really wanted assistance with managing her symptoms because they were really impacting her quality of life,” noted Dr. Joshua Fronk, Christine’s physician on her Stanford palliative care team.

In addition to Dr. Fronk, Christine’s team included a nurse practitioner and a social worker. They immediately sat down with Christine and her husband to address their goals of care.

For Christine, returning to an active life was critical. Her team made medication recommendations to get her symptoms under control, which dramatically improved Christine’s quality of life. Because her team was able to get her symptoms under good control, Christine was able to regain some of the physical mobility that she lost when first receiving chemotherapy. “With palliative care being involved in my care and coordinating with my doctor, we were able to insert a ski trip in the midst of my chemotherapy, and that was such a gift,” noted Christine.

As anyone who has faced a serious illness knows, physical symptoms are only one part of the equation. That’s where the interdisciplinary approach to palliative care can help; physicians and nurses work alongside other specialists to provide an extra layer of support that extends beyond physical symptoms to treat the whole person. Christine’s connection to the social worker on her team played an integral role in her care and even provided much-needed support for Christine’s caregiver, her beloved husband. “He felt very comforted to know that this person that he loves is being cared for as a whole person,” she explained.

Palliative care continues to see rapid growth in the United States; over the last 11 years, its prevalence in U.S. hospitals with 50 or more beds has increased over 165 percent. Dr. Fronk attributes this rise in both access to and demand for quality palliative care to the specialty’s unique approach: “We’ve become very specialized in medicine that everyone has their own organ system and aspect of the body that we’re responsible for, but people aren’t organ systems; people are people, and these medical problems fall into many different realms of who that person is.”

Christine is living proof that you can live well with serious illness, a reality she attributes to palliative care.

“I could not imagine going through what I went through without palliative care as part of my team.”