No one enjoys a gallbladder attack, but Karen Howley LaCamera is glad hers came when it did. Had sharp abdominal pains not sent her to the emergency room in February 2018, it may have been much longer before doctors discovered another major problem silently growing inside her: stage III ovarian cancer.
“I think about that all the time,” says LaCamera, and then laughs. “When the doctor called to tell me I had cancer, I asked ‘Can I just plea bargain back to the gallbladder?’”
LaCamera, 57, cites humor as a major tool in her fight against cancer. Another is tennis; she plays competitive doubles in several Massachusetts leagues. But she gives most credit to her clinical team in the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center. While ovarian cancer is one of the hardest to treat, LaCamera has been in remission for nearly a year thanks to oncologist Ursula Matulonis, MD, and her colleagues.
She’s undergone numerous treatment regimens since her diagnosis, including several clinical trials, but her faith in her team remains unwavering.
“The most essential component you can have as a cancer patient is explicitly believing in your team,” says LaCamera. “There is always this optimism that there is something else out there.”
One of the greatest challenges with ovarian cancer is that it is often undetectable until it reaches more advanced stages. This was the case with LaCamera, who says she felt great right up until her gallbladder attack. The first indication that her symptoms might be pointing to something more serious was when LaCamera began describing where she hurt to the ER doctor; some areas didn’t match up with where gallbladder pain is typically located.
“They did a CT scan, and found I had a tumor in my ovary the size of an orange,” says LaCamera.
Her gallbladder crisis was put on temporary hold, and within two weeks LaCamera had surgery to remove her ovaries; after this, in March 2018, LaCamera began a standard chemotherapy regimen.
Thus began an extended treatment odyssey. LaCamera was put on one chemotherapy protocol that was effective for six months (during which she had her gallbladder removed), and then another that stopped working after just two. A clinical trial that included a PARP inhibitor looked promising, until one of the drugs caused a bowel perforation in November 2019. Next up were a few months on an oral agent, followed up by another clinical trial testing the efficacy of a bispecific antibody known as REGN4018.
Through it all, LaCamera retained her high energy. She continued playing tennis, spending time with her husband, David, and ran a half-marathon and the Falmouth Road Race with her daughter, Devyn.
Once, after crossing the Falmouth finish line, LaCamera spotted Stephanie Morrissey, RN, OCN, her clinical research nurse. She could tell Morrissey was shocked to see her; after all, LaCamera had an appointment at the Susan F. Smith Center the next day.
“It’s OK, don’t worry’” LaCamera yelled. “I’ll get all the good stuff I need from my infusion!”
Serving up optimism
LaCamera did develop abdominal tumors which required removal in late 2020, but the REGN4018 trial put her ovarian cancer into remission — where it has remained since.
“Karen has done extremely well; her outlook is amazing, and she takes such great care of herself both physically and emotionally,” says Matulonis, chief of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center. “She really is cared for by a team, and, importantly, our gynecologic oncology clinical research team as well as Colleen Feltmate, MD, her gynecologic oncology surgeon.”
These days, LaCamera remains focused on the present. She comes each six weeks to the Susan F. Smith Center for lab work and a meeting with her team, and in between fills her calendars with walks and tennis matches. A return to running is a possibility, and she’s also tried pickleball, a hybrid of tennis, badminton, and ping-pong.
She knows the cancer could return in another area, but if it does LaCamera says she’s ready.
“If it comes back, the good news is I have this amazing team,” she says. “They know what’s best, and I know that the more we can learn about ovarian cancer, the better chance we have to improve early detection and cure rates in my daughter’s generation.”