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Leaving Ovarian Cancer in the Dust

Endurance athlete Leslie Ginsberg credits leading-edge therapies with giving her the best chance to battle cancer and get back to her passion, running.

Athleticism is a way of life for Leslie Ginsberg. Joined by a number of family members, she often took part in the Camp Pendleton Mud Run. For five straight years, Ginsberg, now 68, took first place for her age category in conquering the obstacle course, a 10K endurance test involving running, swimming and crawling through troughs of mud.

In 2012, shortly after her fifth Mud Run victory, life threw a different obstacle in her path: ovarian cancer. “You never think it’s going to happen to you,” Ginsberg says. The cancer was discovered by a CT scan after she mentioned abdominal bloating to her doctor. “It doesn’t seem real. But after the initial shock it becomes, ‘OK, now what do I need to do?’ And then you do it.”

A New Endurance Test

The new endurance test began with 15 hours of surgery, five months of intravenous chemotherapy followed by three months of intraperitoneal chemotherapy (IP), a state-of-the-art treatment in which chemo is infused directly into the abdominal cavity.

“I never lost my sense of what I wanted to do—namely return to running. I was never down. I always thought: ‘I’m gonna come through this.’ I’m a positive-thinking person.”

Family members were again by her side for this battle, this time joined by caregivers from UC Irvine Health. Ginsberg’s medical “family” was led by Dr. Robert E. Bristow, chair of gynecology and obstetrics and director of gynecologic oncology services at UC Irvine Health, home to Orange County’s only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center.

Ginsberg and her husband of 35 years, Phillip, had researched ovarian cancer treatment centers near and far before deciding on UC Irvine Health. “We felt we were in the right place,” Ginsberg says. “Dr. Bristow’s expertise, experience and explanations made me feel comfortable and safe in his care.”

That feeling of being protected continued during the 11 days Ginsberg was hospitalized after surgery. And she found the UC Irvine Health caregivers continued to extend care to her once she was home.

“When I got home, I was suddenly all alone. But the medical team was wonderful. If I had a question or concern, I would email and they would respond via email or by calling if it was urgent.”

Ginsberg especially remembers the compassion of infusion nurse Linda Armendariz at the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center in Orange. “By chance, she was the nurse who took care of me on my first chemo day,” she recalls. “She took her time, explained the procedure and what I could expect, which put me at ease as much as possible. If she worked on the days I was getting chemo, she would take care of me. Everyone there was so kind.”

Getting Back on Track

Chemo laid her low. Ginsberg went from daily running five to six miles on the beach near her Newport Coast home to days when a walk to the corner and back was a challenge. On better days, when her body was bouncing back from chemo, two longtime friends—Nancy Collins and Irene Simkin—would walk with her along the beach. Then the next round of treatment would knock her back.

Through it all, she says, “I never lost my sense of what I wanted to do—namely return to running. I was never down. I always thought: ‘I’m gonna come through this.’ I’m a positive-thinking person.”

In March 2016 Ginsberg will be three years post-chemo. She credits the intraperitoneal chemotherapy with giving her the best chance to battle the cancer and her excellent overall health for her speedy recovery.

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The treatment is used for malignancies that have originated in or spread to the peritoneum—the membrane that covers the abdominal walls and organs. A machine pumps a large quantity of high-dose chemotherapy solution into the abdominal cavity, then circulates the fluid so it reaches every nook and cranny and kills hidden ovarian cancer cells before they can spread the cancer elsewhere.

However, only a fraction of U.S. women who are candidates for intraperitoneal chemotherapy for ovarian cancer treatment receive it, says Bristow, who wants to raise awareness about this disparity in care. As a university-based medical system and NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center, UC Irvine Health adheres to the latest and highest standards of care and gives patients access to leading-edge therapies, often well before they are available to the general public.

“IP therapy is more labor-intensive to administer and has a higher risk of associated complications than conventional IV therapy,” he notes. “But university medical centers are leaders on implementing new therapies. It’s where the new research is being conducted.”

Only a couple of months after she finished chemo, Ginsberg was back to jogging daily with her two friends. She jokes that when her time comes, “the way I want to go is to conk out while running down the beach, doing what I love.”