Family ties laced with cancer

Gynecologic cancer has been an unhappy family affair for Sally Rosemeyer, 75, wife of Leo and mother of three daughters and two sons.

At 46, the Monroeville woman was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy, then went about her life cancer-free for nearly 30 years.

But in the later years of that period, cancer struck her family with a vengeance.

"My daughter Susan [Likovich] had breast cancer; Megan [Ash] had breast cancer and then Vicki [Rosemeyer] had breast cancer -- all three of my daughters," Mrs. Rosemeyer said. Susan got it in both breasts, one year apart.

Megan went ahead and had her ovaries removed; Mrs. Rosemeyer and her other two daughters underwent genetic testing. The tests showed they all carried the BRCA1 gene mutation, which, along with BRCA2, can be passed by either the mother or father to either male or female children. The gene puts women at high risk for both breast and ovarian cancer and possibly other cancers, including pancreatic.

Vicki also had preventive surgery. "They're clean -- Megan and Vicki," Mrs. Rosemeyer said. "Susan and I were diagnosed with ovarian cancer and we were the talk of Magee [Womens Hospital of UPMC] because we were operated on on the same day." That was Nov. 9 of last year.

"Susan had a tougher time than I did. This is her fourth bout with cancer," Mrs. Rosemeyer said. In between her two mastectomies and her ovarian cancer surgery, Ms. Likovich, 52, had a Stage 4 tumor removed from the back of her tongue, a cancer that she blames on her years as a smoker.

Mrs. Rosemeyer's surgery, performed at Magee by Dr. Robert Edwards, was extensive, including removal of a "little wee tumor" resting on her colon, she said. She also needed a colostomy that she said eventually will be reversed.

"You know what [Dr. Edwards] told me? 'I took out everything you didn't need,' " Mrs. Rosemeyer said. She laughed.

In December, she had a port to carry chemotherapy surgically inserted in a vein below her right collarbone, and in January she began six rounds of what she called "heavy chemo."

After that, Dr. Edwards talked to Mrs. Rosemeyer about joining a cooperative Phase 3 study funded by the National Cancer Institute looking at the cancer drug Avastin, which is used to treat patients who have colon and rectal cancers that have spread to other parts of the body. One out of three participants get a placebo in the blind study.

"The study evaluates whether Avastin adds to the response rate or survival for ovarian cancer," Dr. Edwards said.

Mrs. Rosemeyer gets chemotherapy every 21 days and will have 22 rounds of chemo total, including the first six. "I think I'll be done around February or March. ...

"[Dr. Edwards] said that probably would prolong my life two years," Mrs. Rosemeyer said. "... I said 'OK, I'll do it.' "

But a longer survival was not her only motivation for joining the study. She also hopes the study someday will help other cancer patients.

"The way I feel about it, [it's worth it] if I can help anybody, especially like young mothers who have children -- they don't look after their own health, they look after their kids. They have to be aware of what's going on."

She also tells women to go to their gynecologist for checkups and, if there is cancer in their family, to undergo genetic testing. She's also nagging her sons Eddie and Donnie to be tested, as the gene mutation can cause cancer in men, too.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Rosemeyer said, "Dr. Edwards thinks I'm doing pretty well, and I'm taking it one day at a time, enjoying life and, thank God, I feel like I'm in perfect health. I never got sick from the chemo. ...

"But you know I'm going to beat it," she added. "I'm going to beat it."

First Published October 1, 2008 4:00 AM


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