For Cheryl G., 51, the journey to Dr. J. William Harbour’s office in April 2011 had been a long one. In fact, it started a few months earlier when her vision slowly began fading. Contacts and reading glasses could not counteract the spots, dots, and floaters. Cheryl was in and out of doctors’ offices, first told she had an infection and eventually diagnosed with cataracts.
“I was so happy because cataracts are treatable.” Wife, mother of six, and grandmother of a seven-year-old-boy, Cheryl was eager to get back to her family and beloved job of running a local women’s gym. But before surgery, she learned that this wasn’t going to be simple—she didn’t have cataracts, she had a tumor.
After yet another doctor’s appointment, Cheryl was referred to Dr. William Harbour, who is an ocular oncologist and clinical researcher who was then at Washington University in St. Louis, not far from her home in southern Illinois.
“I had all kinds of tests…an ultrasound, a liver enzyme test, a bunch of photos taken of the inside of my eye, and a CT and MRI scan. This went on for eight or nine hours. Then Dr. Harbour said my tumor was huge, and that radiation was not an option. My eye had to come out and the surgery had to be done soon.” Cheryl was devastated.
Dr. Harbour explained there was a test that could tell Cheryl her risk of metastasis, that is, the odds that her cancer would spread. Like many others, she said yes. She wanted to know her tumor type.
“I was sure it was coming back as Class 1,” with a low risk of spreading. “I just wanted that confirmation.” Cheryl was wrong. When Dr. Harbour called with the results, she learned her tumor was Class 2, with a 72% chance of eventually metastasizing to her liver.
“I shut down, I couldn’t speak. I was totally down,” she says. “I made myself sick with depression. I could barely make it to the kitchen sink without being out of breath.”
“It took me about four to five months to say ‘stop it.’ I got back to work and back to my normal life. Since then, my life has taken a total turn.”
“I’ve been spending more time with my family—my husband, my kids, my grandson, even my extended family. It has brought us all closer together. And I have a really strong support system at work. The women at my gym have been with me the whole way.”
Cheryl believes that another major positive is the aggressive monitoring and follow-up her Class 2 status requires. She must go for either an MRI or liver function test every three months. She’s not so sure she would get—or push for—this level of scrutiny without her Class 2 prognosis, or that her insurance would cover it. She’s hopeful that as soon as any metastasis is detected, early treatment will be able to prolong her life.
“I am grateful to know,” says Cheryl. “If I had to make the decision again, I’d take the test.”