“Medical books have been rewritten” because of ovarian cancer patient’s journey
Beating the odds, 15 years and counting
It was supposed to be the start of a wonderful new life in Canada for newcomer Joahnna Navarro-Lalic, her husband Jerry and their three small children.
But just months after emigrating from the Philippines in 2006, Navarro-Lalic was diagnosed with ovarian cancer so advanced and aggressive that, even with treatment, her life expectancy was less than five years.
Spotlight on Joahnna Navarro-Lalic, ovarian cancer patient
“We were living in a basement apartment in Mississauga at the time,” says Navarro-Lalic, who has since settled in Brampton with her family. “We had no immediate family to help us, and we were relying on one income because I hadn’t found a job in Canada yet.”
“Medical books have been rewritten because of her journey and how well she’s doing today.” — Shirley Ann Fobler, clinical research study coordinator
Fifteen years have passed since then, and Navarro-Lalic is alive and thriving thanks to the leading-edge care she received at Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre (JHCC).
This included taking part in a clinical trial – a type of research used to determine safety and effectiveness of potential new treatments. The drug Navarro-Lalic tested saved her life and was eventually approved for use in Canada, giving many ovarian cancer patients longer lifespans than anyone could have dreamed of just a few years ago.
Life-changing cancer care
Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre is the only hospital in the region where patients can be treated for all forms of cancer, with staff and doctors supporting more than 26,000 cancer patients each year.
“I couldn’t even say care. I think it’s more love. Love for me and my family. That’s what I experienced from Juravinski Cancer Centre.” — Joahnna Navarro-Lalic, ovarian cancer patient
It’s a leading site in Ontario for patients with uterine, ovarian, cervical and vulvar cancer, as well as gestational trophoblastic disease, where rare tumors develop during pregnancy. This program serves a large population throughout the region and also holds regular clinics at the cancer centre in Thunder Bay.
When Navarro-Lalic was first diagnosed in 2007, her youngest daughter Micaela was just one year old. Big sister Rebecca was six and their brother Zachary was nine. Navarro-Lalic wasn’t expected to live long enough to see Micaela start kindergarten or the two older children finish grade school.
Yet thanks to the life-changing cancer care she received at JHCC, she has lived to dance at Zachary’s wedding, celebrate Rebecca’s acceptance into university and see Micaela enter Grade 12 this year.
Navarro-Lalic’s first bout of cancer was treated with surgery in Stratford, ON where her family doctor worked. “He was the brother of our family doctor in the Philippines.”
She was given the option of having chemotherapy at a downtown Toronto hospital or JHCC, and chose Hamilton.
Treatment knocked back the cancer but a year later, in 2008, it returned and she was treated with another round of chemotherapy at JHCC.
When it came back a third time, in 2010, she was once again treated with chemotherapy and also offered the opportunity to take part in a clinical trial for a drug called Olaparib. This oral treatment targets and blocks the genetic repair of cancer cells, causing their death. At the time, it was a completely new medication.
“Dr. Jimenez is my rock.” — Joahnna Navarro-Lalic, ovarian cancer patient
“Back in 2010 we didn’t know a lot about this drug,” says Dr. Waldo Jimenez, Navarro-Lalic’s oncologist and head of gynecologic oncology at JHCC. “But, thanks to the clinical trial and patients like Joahnna, who volunteered to take part, we now know that this medication can be very effective.”
Today at JHCC, ground-breaking cancer research includes 260 clinical trials currently underway. This critical research ensures that patients receive the most up-to-date and effective cancer treatments and that new ways of treating cancer are discovered, benefiting patients around the world.
The trial Navarro-Lalic participated in is long over but she continues to take Olaparib pills daily as a maintenance treatment, and visit JHCC for follow-ups with her oncology team every six months.
“With the support of this maintenance program, she has remained in remission and is considered cured,” says Jimenez.
Registered nurse Shirley Ann Fobler has worked closely with Jimenez and Navarro-Lalic for seven years in her role as a clinical research study coordinator at JHCC.
“Medical books have been rewritten because of her journey and how well she’s doing today,” says Fobler. “Everywhere this particular drug goes, it’s her story that’s shared.”
Spotlight on Dr. Waldo Jimenez, head of gynecologic oncology
Jimenez has been caring for Navarro-Lalic since 2010, when her cancer returned for the third time and she joined the clinical trial.
“I feel like we’re their quarterback, leading the offence against their cancer…” — Dr. Waldo Jimenez
“Dr. Jimenez is my rock,” says Navarro-Lalic, who is deeply grateful for the care she has received and considers him family.
Jimenez leads the team of specialists required to treat gynecologic cancers. Research is another important area of focus, with opportunities for some patients to take part in national and international clinical trials.
Relationship-building with fellow doctors, nurses, other hospital staff and patients is among the aspects of work that Jimenez enjoys most. “It’s a pleasure for me to come to work every day,” he says.
His team provides surgery, systemic treatment like chemotherapy and immunotherapy, and palliative care.
“We’re there for the patient’s entire journey. I feel like we’re their quarterback, leading the offence against their cancer but also working with them as part of their team.”
Jimenez’s hope for the department’s future is to grow so the team can continue providing leading-edge care for the increasing number of patients coming through their doors.
Spotlight on Shirley Ann Fobler, registered nurse and clinical research study coordinator
Ask Navarro-Lalic about Fobler and she reaches for a tissue to dab her eyes.
“I’m going to start crying,” Navarro-Lalic says. “This isn’t just a nurse-patient relationship for me. We talk about our children. We talk about life. Shirley Ann works hand-in-hand with Dr. Jimenez and his team and she’s always there for me.”
Fobler has been an HHS nurse for 32 years, always in gynecology. When the opportunity came up to work in clinical trials, she decided to apply and has been in the coordinator role for 10 years.
“It’s exciting to be part of research that could potentially make a huge difference for our patients,” says Fobler. “This really motivates me, and it’s why I love coming to work every day. It’s a privilege to be part of someone’s story.”
Illuminight: Help shine a light on gynecologic cancers
Illuminight is an annual fundraising event that aims to shine a light on the nationally-leading, life-saving cancer care and research at JHCC. This year, we’re celebrating Illuminight with a five-part series of stories and videos from Sept. 22 to Oct. 11 featuring gynecologic, blood and hepato-pancreato-biliary (HPB) cancer care as well as cancer research and health equity.
Tuesday, Sept. 27: Leukemia diagnosis blindsides breast cancer survivor
Thursday, Sept. 29: Well-oiled cancer care ‘machine’ gives Hamilton man quality of life
Tuesday, Oct. 4: Partnering for equitable, high-quality cancer care
Tuesday, Oct. 11: Lung cancer research and treatment working wonders
Since 2018, Illuminight has raised more than $500,000 to support the highest priority needs of the cancer program at Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre. Help us shine a light on cancer and donate today.