It was October 2010, and 33-year-old Libby Malphrus was juggling more than most people can handle. She was working full time as a genetic counselor for a perinatal practice, parenting a 4-year-old, balancing the demands of marriage and home life, and – perhaps most overwhelming – helping her mother go through treatment for primary peritoneal cancer. The last thing she needed was the phone call from her gynecologist’s office stating that her recent Pap test results were abnormal.
“I had had normal Pap results for 17 years. This was the first time I had ever gotten a call back. The timing was awful,” said Malphrus. The family was already reeling from her mother’s battle with a difficult gynecologic cancer, and now Malphrus realized that she could be facing the same thing.
She scheduled a colposcopy procedure with her gynecologist, Kimberly Crute, M.D. During the procedure, her doctor examined her cervix with a special magnifying lens. Crute did not see any obvious warning signs, but she sent a tissue sample for further testing. The results indicated highly abnormal and potentially cancerous cells. Crute then performed a loop electrosurgical excision procedure, also known as LEEP. This procedure uses low energy current and a wire loop to remove abnormal cells from the cervix. In many cases, the LEEP can remove all abnormal cells before they spread. Malphrus underwent her LEEP on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. The results stunned her – she had invasive cervical cancer.
“I had no symptoms when I was diagnosed. I was a runner. I exercised four or five times a week. A month earlier, you would have never convinced me that I had cancer,” said Malphrus.
She met with James Burke, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist at Memorial Health University Medical Center. Burke explained all of Malphrus’ options. She could undergo radiation therapy in an attempt to kill the cancerous cells, or she could remove the cancer surgically through a radical hysterectomy.
“I was already very worried because of my mother’s history. I knew that a radical hysterectomy would dramatically lower my risk of future cancer. But at the same time, it’s very difficult to have that choice – the choice to have more children – taken away from you,” said Malphrus. In the end, she and her husband decided on the radical hysterectomy.
“I had one healthy child and I wanted to be cancer-free. I just didn’t want to risk it,” said Malphrus.
She then learned that she could be the first person at Memorial Health to have a hysterectomy with the new da Vinci Si robotic surgery system. The da Vinci Si is the very latest robotic surgical tool, and Memorial Health was the first in the region to offer the new technology. Malphrus researched the system extensively, spoke with Burke, and spoke with colleagues in other parts of the country. She determined that minimally invasive surgery with the da Vinci Si was the best choice for her.
“I had a full-time job and a 4-year-old. I needed to get in and out quickly. I trusted Dr. Burke’s surgical skills and I knew it was the fastest and safest way to be cancer free,” said Malphrus.
On January 4, 2011, Malphrus had surgery to remove the top third of her vagina, several lymph nodes, her ovaries, and her uterus. It was a very involved procedure that lasted nearly five hours. She had five small incisions that were about half an inch long and barely noticeable.
Her first night in the recovery room was difficult, but by the next day, Malphrus was able to eat a regular lunch and walk on her own. She had hoped to go home that same day. However, she had a swollen bruise near one of her incisions that her caregivers wanted to monitor. The bruise improved and on January 6, just two days after major surgery, Malphrus went home to begin recovering.
She was surprised at how quickly her body healed. Within a week, she was able to drive. Within two weeks, the pain and swelling were gone and she felt very good. She did experience a blood clot in her right leg about 11 days after surgery. She returned to the hospital and was prescribed a regimen of blood thinners to break up the clot. That proved to be only a minor hiccup for Malphrus, and within four weeks she returned to work.
“Women used to be out of work for six to eight weeks following a hysterectomy. In fact, giving birth required a longer recovery than this,” said Malphrus.
Perhaps the best news of all was that pathology reports showed that the cancer had not spread to any other parts of her body. She is cancer free today. Shortly after Malphrus returned to work, her mother had her last chemotherapy treatment. Both women looked forward to a great year.
Today, Malphrus is using her experience with cervical cancer to help other others. She encourages parents to vaccinate their daughters and sons with the HPV vaccine that can prevent certain cancers. She also encourages women to get a Pap exam every year, even if they’ve received years of “normal” results. To promote her message and help raise funds for gynecological cancer research, Malphrus started a website and Facebook page called “Save the Hoo Hahs”. Her goal is to help find a cure, so that her daughter will never have to face the same frightening diagnosis.