Women's Cancer Program Replaces Fear With Hope

Like most women coming to the Cedars-Sinai Women's Cancer Program for the first time, Dana Baratta was wracked with fear. Her primary care doctor had diagnosed her with advanced ovarian cancer, and she couldn't stop the terrifying scenarios from playing over and over in her head.

"Will I die from cancer? Will I go into remission? Will I need surgery? Will I lose my hair?"

Fortunately for Baratta, she would soon be in the care of the program's gynecologic oncology specialists, whose work is part of the Cedars-Sinai Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute. The Women's Cancer Program specializes in ovarian, uterine, cervical, fallopian tube, vaginal and vulvar cancers. It performs the most uterine and ovarian cancer procedures in Los Angeles.

"Fear doesn't get in the way of our team fighting cancer," said Beth Y. Karlan, MD, director of the Women's Cancer Program and an internationally renowned expert in gynecologic oncology. "We are not scared of women's cancers. We believe in our patients, our approach and our leading technologies."

"People still consider ovarian cancer a 'silent killer,' but it's anything but quiet," said Karlan, who is also a member of the National Cancer Advisory Board appointed by the White House. "Your body provides you with the warning signs; you just have to listen and respond to them. Women tend to be caregivers, spending so much time helping those around them, that they don't take time to stop and listen to their own bodies."

Ignoring her body's warning signs was exactly what Baratta had done. For over a year she experienced abdominal pain, bloating, feeling full quickly and having a frequent urge to urinate. When she finally saw her doctor and received the diagnosis, she promptly sought advice from friends, co-workers and other female cancer survivors who recommended the Women's Cancer Program at Cedars-Sinai.

"It was very apparent that Dana was in a place of fear and shock," said Karlan, recalling her first meeting with Baratta. "My goal was to get Dana to a place of hope and action, providing options and planning for a long life of survivorship."

The personalized treatment and support plan Karlan devised also gave Baratta a boost of confidence that would continue to build.

"She energized me and prepared me for the fight of my life, supporting me through the ups and downs of treatment and providing honest, yet hopeful, conversations about the ugly side effects of cancer," Baratta said. "Each time we spoke, it was an encouraging conversation, not a depressing one, which prepared me for the many physical, psychological and emotional tolls of cancer."

The Women's Cancer Program team, which includes six gynecologic oncologists, is one of the best in the nation at developing partnerships between scientists and physicians that reduce the time needed to translate research findings into patient treatments.In fact, the five-year survival rate for Stage 3 ovarian cancer patients at Cedars-Sinai is well above the national average, and more than 80 percent of the patients go into remission.

Karlan attributed these results to her team's in-depth understanding of the biology of ovarian cancer, the use of improved surgical techniques, and personalized chemotherapy treatments. "Women like Dana Baratta are living longer and thriving due to this leading-edge research and our passion for treating cancer patients," she said.

Baratta's treatment plan included the removal of her tumor through meticulous debulking surgery, which enabled her to make a speedy recovery. She then enrolled in a clinical trial sponsored by the National Cancer Institute and began a chemotherapy regimen adapted to her busy schedule, allowing her to continue working full-time as a television producer and writer.

The individualized treatment plan also made it possible for Baratta to continue to spend time with her husband and dearest friends — a blessing she did not expect when she learned of her diagnosis.

After completing six rounds of chemotherapy, Baratta's cancer was in remission, but given the aggressiveness of the disease, Karlan took the extra step of continuing Baratta's treatment in a clinical trial with hopes of bolstering her body's chances of remaining in remission.

"My clinical trial chemotherapy regimen can be hard on my emotional and physical state, but I know I'm being closely monitored and cared for, which brings me comfort," Baratta said. "I understand the beauty in this maintenance care and do not allow it to interfere with the life I had before cancer."

Today, between her clinical trial treatments, Baratta not only continues her career but enjoys vacationing with her husband at their lake cottage in Maine — a place where swimming, kayaking and skiing are top of mind, not cancer.

"The biggest factor in how your journey will unfold is making the right decision about where your treatment will begin," Baratta said. "I feel so fortunate that I was led to Cedars-Sinai. This extended family is such an important part to my life."