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Voices: ‘It is Unfathomable’

Ovarian Cancer
Jan 31, 2013

‘It is Unfathomable’ | Leigh Seamon, DO, MPH, FACOG

As oncologists, we routinely discuss proposed treatments, side effects and prognoses with patients and families. But, what happens when you or your family faces the “terrible C?” Part of the healing process for me is sharing my aunt’s story. What follows is the tribute that I recently made at her funeral and by far the most difficult speech that I have ever prepared or given.

Apparently, I knew Elizabeth even prior to my birth—she was Aunt Libby. My sister, Krista, and I have very fond memories of the times we spent with her. There were ice skating and wave pool trips, movies, Easter egg and Christmas cookie decorating, totally cool summer camps at her apartment, many vacations and even a few trips to Disney.

Growing up, we came to appreciate her even more and admired ALL of her personality and character traits that made her an excellent aunt, big and little sister, daughter, wife, kindergarten teacher, close friend and colleague. She was always so patient, thoughtful, rational, loving and kind.  Although quietly reserved at times, she appropriately stood her ground when required—just ask her brother John.  She was unbelievably organized and such a planner.

Many of you know that Libby was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer last year—ironically, the disease I treat as a gynecologic oncologist.  In this role, I routinely discuss proposed treatments, side effects and prognoses with patients and families just like mine. Although I empathize and connect on different levels with individual patients, I unknowingly became skilled at separating the disease process from the patient herself.  I remind myself and staff constantly that we did not give the patient her disease and that we cannot possibly cure everyone.  It is a survivorship skill that I learned early in fellowship training. It allows me make it through that difficult recurrent ovarian cancer or hospice discussion, and even helps redirect the focus to the next task at hand.

When I “mistakenly” get too close to a particular patient, I am faced with processing the loss. Because we do not want to go through the grieving process over and over again, that psychological barrier becomes impenetrable—at least for a while.  Walking alongside my aunt through the unfathomable ovarian cancer journey has given me permission to start breaking down the wall that I spent years unintentionally fostering between my patients and myself.  It has not only made me a better doctor, it has made me a better and more complete person. Libby had that effect on everyone she met.

A few weeks ago, Libby shared with me the following:
•    It is unfathomable that there is not a screening test for this disease.
•    It is unfathomable that there are women every day suffering because this disease cannot be detected early.
•    It is unfathomable that there is not a cure.
•    It is unfathomable that doctors are unaware of the “silent” symptoms of ovarian cancer.

In honor of her and this passion, her husband, Mac established the Elizabeth “Libby” Glasscock McDaniel Gynecologic Cancer endowment at Spectrum Health Foundation and Lemmen-Holton cancer pavilion, my cancer center. Through this endowed fund, her memory will live on and I will be able to continue to pursue the quest to conquer cancer through research and awareness.

God works miracles in many ways that we cannot see nor do we understand.  He does answer our prayers, but in the manner we need not want.  We heard from many of you last night that you believed that the timing of her death, prior to the shootings in Connecticut, was not incidental. As we mourn the loss of Libby and of all the little children and teachers involved in that tragic event, we can’t help but think that HE played a role in this and knew that Libby would be needed to prepare and welcome the children into her new classroom above.

One day, I shared with her a poem that one of my patients shared with me and now our family would like leave with you.  These words inspired her during the fight of her disease:

Cancer is so limited…
It cannot cripple love
It cannot shatter hope
It cannot corrode faith
It cannot destroy peace
It cannot kill friendship(s)
It cannot suppress memories
It cannot silence courage
It cannot invade the soul
It cannot steal eternal life
It cannot conquer the spirit.

We love you Libby and we will NEVER forget you.