“Just in Case”

An unexpected diagnosis leads to new outlook on health, life for cancer patient

It was the summer of 2010, and Geri Beth Bemberg, a 22-year-old and soon-to-be-graduate of the University of Arkansas, returned to her hometown of West Memphis for a summer of relaxation before starting her first year of Pharmacy School at the University of Arkansas for Medical Science. A selfprofessed woman of routine and an aspiring medical professional herself, the summer was also set aside for those annual doctor appointments — including a visit with her gynecologist, Dr. Thomas Gray. Little did she know, her life and health journey would soon take an unexpected turn.

“It was during my physical exam that Dr. Gray said something just didn’t feel right,” said Bemberg. “He was not overly concerned, but recommended that I move forward with an ultrasound — just in case — to see if there was any serious issue.”

An ultrasound detected what appeared to be a cyst on her left ovary, and a rather large one at that. Dr. Gray recommended Bemberg move ahead with surgery to remove the cyst, with plans for a quick recovery and return to a normal routine as soon as possible. However, it was during surgery that doctors determined the mass on her left ovary was not, in fact, a cyst — it was a tumor the size of a grapefruit. It was also not on her left ovary; it was inside her right ovary. The size of the tumor was so big, it had essentially pushed over everything in her abdomen, making it appear as though it was located on the left side.

Initial pathology results showed the tumor was benign. However, due to the sheer size of the mass, and the young age at which it had developed, Dr. Gray recommended Bemberg visit with a physician at West Cancer Center – just in case. Bemberg was referred to Todd Tillmanns, MD, FACOG, Gynecologic Oncologist at West Cancer Center, who recommended a second pathology report be run on the tumor, also “just in case.”

“Everything up until this point had been done on a ‘just in case’ basis,” said Bemberg. “So, needless to say, we were 100% comfortable with the additional pathology review recommended by Dr. Tillmanns.”

When those results came back, Bemberg was anxiously approaching the conclusion of her first semester at Pharmacy School and eager to return home for the Christmas holiday. Plans for what those results showed, however, were certainly not on her agenda. A follow-up appointment with Dr. Tillmanns revealed that while a portion of the mass was benign, the other part of the tumor was malignant or cancerous. Since the original surgery had been performed without knowing the true nature of the mass in Bemberg’s ovary, another surgery would be required to determine staging.

That surgery, performed by Dr. Tillmanns, confirmed Bemberg’s diagnosis of Stage 1A Ovarian Cancer — great news, as that determined it had not spread beyond her ovary.

“I woke up from surgery with a ‘survivor’ bracelet on my arm,” said Bemberg. “And it was awesome.”

When asked whether or not this diagnosis impacted her outlook on life, Bemberg answered quite simply: “completely.” Bemberg exercises at least five to six times a week, alternating between yoga, spin and barre classes. And while she is a self-proclaimed foodie, she is also focused on healthy, clean eating — a key component in building a new lifestyle for herself and her family. “Whereas for some people fitness may be about losing weight or fitting into a favorite dress; for me, it’s about staying healthy so I can live a long, happy life,” said Bemberg.

Now 28, married and working as a Pharmacist in Little Rock, Bemberg looks back on her cancer — and health — journey as an experience made up of many “just in cases.” However, her message is clear to women of all ages — don’t miss your annual health appointments.

“You hear so many people dread their annual health appointments. But, at the end of the day, my tumor would never have been found if it had not been for that appointment,” said Bemberg. “I should not have discovered my diagnosis as early as I did; but I did because I took preventative action to keep my health in check.”

For more patient stories like Geri Beth’s, as well as a complete listing of West Cancer Center services, programs and locations, visit http://www.westcancercenter.org.

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