The Cancer Cell Laid Dormant 42 Years, Then It ‘Bloomed’

She sits in the chair with a bowl of fresh fruit next to her as the drugs pump into her arm - chemotherapy.

It’s almost unfathomable to Vicki DeShong that she is doing this again. A lifetime ago – more than four decades ago -- she was doing the exact same thing.

Doctors, too, are astounded. After all, Vicki lived for 42 years with a dormant cancer cell in her body – a little cell just sitting there, festering, doing nothing.

Then in November, it awoke. And Vicki found herself in the middle of that cancer nightmare all over again.

***

The first time it happened was 1975. Vicki was just 25 years old. She started losing weight for no reason, having bad diarrhea and then her abdomen started bloating. Getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

It was ovarian cancer. Stage 4. That wasn’t good at all.

As she went through treatment and chemo, she also went to nursing school -- even as she felt weak and sick from the drugs.

But then she beat that cancer. It was gone. Vanished.

She graduated from nursing school in 1978 and went to work. She worked in emergency rooms, intensive care units and transplant departments at hospitals from Indiana to Texas.

Vicki stayed cancer free all that time. Cancer free for five years and then 10 years, then 20 years, then 30 years.

And then four decades passed. Still free.

***

The weight loss was happening again. Vicki couldn’t figure it out.

A 66-year-old woman usually has to try to lose weight. The pounds were falling off of her. And the diarrhea; it was back, too.

Her husband, Gene, had to prod her to go to the doctor. She finally did.

“I was so shocked. I was just in shock when they told me,” said Vicki, as she sat in the IU Simon Cancer Center getting chemo last week.

It was cancer again -- ovarian cancer cells on her pancreas.

“Imagine a 42-year-old cancer cell lying there dormant,” said Vicki, who lives in Scottsburg, Ind., “and then it starts blooming one day.”

That’s exactly what happened, a perfect description of it, said Dr. S. Hamid Sayar, Vicki’s oncologist at Simon Cancer Center. Vicki’s situation is a rare one, he said.

“It is extremely uncommon for ovarian cancer to go to the pancreas,” Dr. Sayar said. “In her case, what makes it even more unique is recurrence of the disease after such a long time.”

In other words, this was unfair, said Gene DeShong, who married Vicki in 1989.

“I thought, ‘Why? Why does somebody have to go through this a second time?’” Gene said. “You just question why the good Lord did this. You figure he’s got to have a reason.”

Gene loves so much about Vicki. One of his favorite things is her sense of humor. They laugh together a lot.

They love to travel the country with cameras, taking photos of the bridges and the water and the beaches and the world. Photography bonds them.

They don’t know yet when they will go on their next trip. It depends on Vicki’s treatment and her health. It doesn’t matter; Gene is right there by her side, either way.

When her hair started falling out by the handful, Gene took the clippers and shaved Vicki’s head for her. After he was done, Gene disappeared.

“I kept thinking, ‘Where’s he at?”’ Vicki said.

Not long after, Gene reappeared in front of her with his head shaved.

“Solidarity,” he said.

Gene said Vicki deserves the best. She has such a selfless heart.

“If family and friends need anything, they don’t have to ask,” he said. “She’s right there on the doorstep.”

Even as she fights cancer, Dr. Sayar says, Vicki’s sweetness stands out. He calls her “just delightful.”

“She is an absolutely adorable pleasant personality,” he said, “loved by all of us.”

And everybody who knows Vicki has one wish -- that she beats this second battle with the disease.

“Everyone keeps saying, ‘You kicked cancer’s butt before. You’ll do it again,’” Vicki says. “I sure hope so.”

-- By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Benbow via email dbenbow@iuhealth.org or on Twitter @danabenbow.


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