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Miracle of Survivorship

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UAB Medicine patient Angela Catrett, 64, has been battling cancer for seven years. Although the illness has been an ordeal for Catrett and her family, the former Montgomery, Alabama native says the experience has strengthened her faith in God.

In 2012, Catrett became about a minor health issue that, for years, she basically dismissed as a bladder ailment.

“I really didn’t get too worried before I first went to see a urologist,” Catrett says. “There’s a history of bladder conditions in my family, so I figured a visit to a urologist would solve what was more than likely no big deal. I couldn’t have been more wrong. A few minutes after the doctor examined me, she said a scan should be done within the next day. On the following morning after the images were reviewed at the Montgomery Cancer Center, a physician informed me that I was already in the third stage of ovarian cancer. He said I had maybe six months to live.”

Catrett now often wonders if seeing a doctor earlier, and taking medication in the very early stages of her illness, could have prevented the cancer form advancing so far. By the time she was diagnosed, the disease was already, as she puts it, “changing my life forever.” Yet even on the day that Catrett describes as one of the worst of her life, she believes that was when God began guiding her medical journey.

“The doctor who provided my diagnosis was very understanding and straightforward in giving me such bad news that afternoon,” Catrett says. “But then he said ‘I really think you should get a second opinion,’ and he referred me to UAB. That’s why I can say God has been holding my hand from day one of this illness until today, because, even though I learned at UAB that my care would require major surgery and a lot of treatments, this was the place where the doctors told me I had a chance.”

Part of her treatment, through the UAB Medicine Comprehensive Ovarian Cancer Program, involved participation in three clinical trials, two of which provided good outcomes. Initial treatments put Catrett’s cancer in remission for 15 months. Over time, as the cancer returned, other treatments were introduced with various levels of success. Because chemotherapy drugs are designed to attack cells, cancer patients must cope with serious side effects and the overall toll that these chemicals and compounds often take on organs, the digestive system, and the nervous system. There are even lifetime dosage limits on many cancer medications. Over seven years, Catrett has encountered many of those side effects and obstacles.

“We would get good results for a while until the chemotherapy was no longer effective, but usually we stopped when the medication presented more side effects than my body could bear,” Catrett says. “It would just get too harsh for my digestive system. I lost a lot of weight. It was always my doctor’s decision to stop those treatments whenever we would reach that point.”

Catrett looks past the technical issues of her long-term treatment, insisting that other factors in the care she has received influenced her ability and willingness to fight the disease.

“I’m serious when I say God put me in the right place, so I continue to come to UAB because it’s the best. I’ve never been just one more patient coming through the door. Every member of my care team has made an effort to get to know me on a deeper, personal level, especially by learning my moods and habits. As soon as I walk into the clinic now they know exactly how I’m feeling before I even say anything. You can’t fool them. And these nurses and techs immediately respond if they detect that I’m having a tough day. It’s a comfort that they can anticipate my needs, because it means they have a full understanding of the real me.”

Until her family’s recent move to Hueytown a few months ago, Catrett commuted from Montgomery to Birmingham twice each week for chemotherapy. She has remained undaunted by her struggle mainly because, as difficult as the years with cancer have been, each one was another milestone past the six months than she was given to live when first diagnosed. Catrett also characterizes her illness as a learning experience.

“The first thing I learned was that I’m not Superwoman,” she says. “I had two jobs when I first underwent chemotherapy. I used to get out in the yard and cut flowers, and always enjoyed gardening and being in nature. I can’t do all that now. I also discovered that the expense of cancer care over seven years drains your finances. We have had to learn how to live within a very limited means. But that also has a benefit, because it shows you how blessed you were before the illness came along. The main lesson is that you get no warnings. In the blink of an eye your whole life can run into a brick wall.”

Catrett says she’s able to face these issues because each part of her journey has confirmed and renewed her personal faith. But she also insists that her illness brought an even bigger blessing.

It’s true that my faith in God is stronger than ever,” she says. “It’s true that God directing me to UAB has given me the miracle of seven years of life I wouldn’t have had otherwise. But more than all that, what means the most to me is that this experience has changed my children’s personal beliefs. That’s the miracle I wanted. Each one of them found Christ as they made this journey with me. No matter what happens going forward, there’s no better way to leave this life than knowing that my four children are close to God.”