Roberta Aberle and her three sisters share an unfortunate bond: cancer.
Her two oldest sisters passed away from the disease. She and one sister are still fighting the disease. All four sisters were diagnosed in their 40s or 50s, and all have received treatment through UCHealth – Aberle at the University of Colorado Cancer Center on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus and her sisters at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins.
“Our family is definitely satisfied in the care we’ve received,” said Aberle, 53, who lives in Aurora, where she can easily access treatment at CU Anschutz, “and I’m 100 percent confident in the care I’m getting right in my backyard.”
A former quality and process improvement professional for UCHealth, she now applies her skills as an advocate and resource for people with cancer. She’s spreading the word about the treatment she received from CU physicians, and her own story of cancer, far and wide.
Years of diagnoses
“Sadness took root in our family in 2005,” Aberle said. That was the year the first of her sisters, Brenda, received her cancer diagnosis.
Brenda passed away in 2008, and a year later, sister Carol was diagnosed. Both Aberle and her oldest sister Debby got cancer diagnoses in 2012. Debby passed away six months after her diagnosis, but Aberle has survived, outliving her original prognosis by half a decade.
Aberle remembers Leap Day 2012 vividly. That was the day she went in for a quick assessment of a minor pain in her side. Despite her significant risk factors of having multiple first-degree relatives diagnosed with cancer before age 50, she never imagined a life-altering diagnosis.
“I was feeling healthy and energetic and working my dream job,” she said. “Nothing could have been going better at that time.”
She came out with a diagnosis of inoperable primary peritoneal cancer, one of the most rare and lethal forms of cancer, and recommendations to begin arranging for palliative and end-of-life care.
“I was in utter disbelief,” she said. “I had just been thinking how ill everyone in my family is and that I’m not prepared to be the person who outlives my entire family, and now I had cancer, too.”
While the disease has devastated the family, it has also mystified them. All four sisters have had reproductive cancers, but none the exact same type, and each has had a different outcome. Aberle shares the same genetic marker for cancer susceptibility with one of her sisters, but the other two sisters did not have the marker. And on top of everything, in 2015 their father was diagnosed with melanoma and lymphoma.
“Cancer has blown our family to bits,” Aberle said, “but a bit falls to the floor and we pick it up and glue it back on. It’s created a bond that can’t be broken.”
A powerful treatment
Despite her family’s devastation and her own grim prognosis, Aberle was determined to fight her cancer. For the next year and a half, she underwent chemotherapy and entered clinical drug trials. Then, she received hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC), a rare cancer treatment that combines chemotherapy and surgery in a single procedure. The CU School of Medicine Department of Surgery is one of very few care providers in the United States that offer HIPEC.
During Aberle’s HIPEC treatment in 2013, CU surgeons opened her abdomen, removed the visible cancer cells and then doused the remaining cells with heated chemotherapy drugs. This procedure is followed by standard intraperitoneal (IP) chemotherapy. Because both HIPEC and IP techniques deliver chemotherapy directly to cancer cells in the abdomen (unlike systemic chemotherapy delivery, which circulates throughout the body), they can destroy microscopic cancer cells and has helped some patients live decades longer.
But it’s not an easy procedure for patients.
“It’s an invasive procedure, and it was a very difficult and painful recovery,” Aberle said. “I had a port inserted into my abdomen and staples up the length of my belly. Now, I have adhesions and scar tissue that still cause pain sometimes.”
Since HIPEC, Aberle’s cancer has returned, but she still believes it was the right treatment for her.
“It bought me additional time and got me farther down the path to the next available treatment,” she said. “I have no doubt in my mind that, if I had not had access to CU surgeons, I would not have survived this long.”
Survival on her own terms
Now five years into her battle with cancer, Aberle is still determined to fight the disease, and she’s grateful that the care providers at CU Anschutz continue to empower her to do that.
“My survival is 95 percent connected to the care I’m getting from the University of Colorado,” she said. “No one has ever relinquished their hope in me or objected when I say I want to keep going. It is phenomenal to be working with these doctors.”
Two years ago, Aberle took disability leave in order to devote more time and energy to conquering her cancer and to doing the things that are most important to her: spending time with loved ones and sharing her experience to help others.
“I’m not fooling myself that I’m going to live to 103,” she said. “There’s going to be a point when I want to go to palliative care and hospice, but I want to make my sure that we’ve done everything possible first. I know I’m with the right team at the CU Cancer Center, because they share in that philosophy right along with me.”
UPDATE: Roberta Aberle died Nov. 1, 2017. Her husband, David Oine, credits the care she received at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus for her surviving six years after an initial diagnosis of 6-12 months to live.