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McHenry Teacher Beats Ovarian Cancer

The Power of Listening to Her Body

For Brenda Kowalski — a teacher at McHenry's Valley View Elementary School — the transition to remote teaching in 2020 was not due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but rather a different disease: ovarian cancer.

On July 1, 2020, Brenda was diagnosed with stage 1 ovarian cancer after an annual checkup. She planned for remote teaching as she planned her treatment. And just five months after her diagnosis, Brenda's physicians have declared her cancer-free.

Her journey back to health required intuition, strength and trust. Brenda encourages people to listen to their own bodies and speak to a medical professional if they have concerns.

From Annual Checkup to Cancer Diagnosis

Over the summer, Brenda told her primary care physician about abdominal issues she'd been having. After running bloodwork and doing an exam, her physician told her everything seemed fine.

Just a few weeks later, Brenda, 44, began having bloating and pain that went from her breastbone to her lower abdomen. She called her physician, who recommended she go to the Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital Emergency Department.

After a series of tests, Brenda learned she had a cyst on her ovary that needed to be looked at by a specialist. A short time later, she had surgery, and Brenda received a call from her gynecologist, Leonard G. Hering, MD.

"He said, 'Please come in tomorrow and bring your husband,'" Brenda recalls. "Right then, I knew I had cancer."

In the 15% of Women

Brenda learned she had stage 1 ovarian cancer, and was shaken by the news. However, she also focused on her good fortune. "They told me that only 15% of women catch ovarian cancer in stage 1," she says.

Shortly after her diagnosis, Brenda was referred to Alok C. Pant, MD, a gynecologic oncology surgeon at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital. "I told Brenda that her type of cancer is rarely found until a woman is in her 50s or 60s. It was great she trusted her own body," says Dr. Pant. "If you feel like something is wrong, talk to your physician. It's important to go with your gut."

A Collaborative Approach

"This was such a group effort," says Brenda. "Each one of my doctors was so vital in discovering this, and I listened to my body. My doctors have always said they want to know my symptoms, and if I had a new pain I should call. I made myself a priority, and I'm so glad I did because it probably saved my life."

Brenda and her husband, George, connected with Dr. Pant's approach to patient care. "Dr. Pant was knowledgeable and had a great sense of humor. He answered our questions, and he wasn't trying to rush us," Brenda says. "He was so confident, and it made me feel so much calmer."

Dr. Pant says Brenda and George were understandably upset by her cancer diagnosis. However, her energy and determination also filled the room when they met.

Getting Support

By mid-July — just a few weeks after her diagnosis — Dr. Pant performed a robotic hysterectomy on Brenda. He also referred her for genetic testing and medical oncology care at McHenry Hospital. As she prepared for her first round of chemotherapy, Brenda kept in touch with friends and colleagues at McHenry School District 15.

"I was apprehensive about sharing what I was going through because I didn't want people to feel sorry for me," Brenda says. "Pity does not help me. What helps me is people making jokes and being supportive. They've all been so wonderful throughout this entire journey."

Brenda has made light of some of the more difficult moments. "I rock the bald," she says, although it's also not uncommon to see her in a pink wig at Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital Cancer Center.

A Brighter Future Ahead

After completing chemotherapy at Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital with oncologist Nida Hussain, MD, Brenda had more tests on December 22, 2020. When they came back clear, her care team removed her chemotherapy port. Her friends celebrated the moment with a COVID-19-safe drive-by parade on January 2, 2021.

"I've realized my life is still sweet," Brenda says. "There are a couple of sours in there, but it's even sweeter because I know I'm going to beat this. I have great care, and now I have a new appreciation of the love I get from my co-workers, family and friends."

Now cancer-free, Brenda has bright hopes for getting back into the classroom this year. "Second grade is the best grade to teach," Brenda says. "They still love mom and dad, and they haven't mastered the eye roll. They even laugh at 83% of my jokes."

If you have any symptoms or pain that concerns you, contact your primary care provider.