Dog breeder, groomer and artist Laura Libner has three pug puppies.
It’s the first litter she has bred since 2016, the year doctors diagnosed her with fallopian tube cancer.
“It was a labor of love. I didn’t know if I could do it again,” said 58-year-old Libner, who feared she wouldn’t live long enough to raise and train the dogs.
Libner began noticing vague symptoms in 2015.
She didn’t feel quite right. Her midsection seemed “spongy,” even though she hadn’t gained weight.
“I was planning to go to the pug nationals in Gettysburg, and the closer it got, the more afraid I felt to go,” she said.
“I went, anyway, against my instincts,” she said.
After arriving, she fainted a couple of times. Her appetite seemed off. She felt nauseated. She became awkward, falling and tripping for no reason. Her thinking grew unclear.
The symptoms continued after the competition. She dismissed them as long as she could, but it got to where she could no longer ignore them.
Shooting pains and severe nausea finally drove her to the emergency department. She suspected kidney stones. The reality proved much worse.
A CT scan revealed masses the size of cantaloupes on her ovary.
‘Like you’ve been gutted’
Within days of that February 2016 diagnosis, Libner had surgery to remove all of the cancer cells.
“I didn’t know what I was in for, how bad it was,” she said. “I really didn’t realize the gravity of it.”
The 11 1/2-hour procedure included a complete hysterectomy, stents to save her kidneys and the removal of part of her intestine, which also required an ileostomy.
“It was like waking up from the worst accident or dream,” she said. “You feel like you’ve been gutted.”
Her treatments included chemotherapy and more surgeries, then many trips to the emergency room. More nights in the hospital, too. And genetic testing, which revealed she is a rare case: both BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, which significantly increased her cancer risk.
At one point it seemed she’d beaten the cancer, but it returned again just before Christmas 2016.
“I cried for five weeks,” Libner said. “I couldn’t stop.”
Survivorship: A new normal
Today, Libner has been cancer-free for more than a year. She’s taking PARP inhibitors in hopes the cancer will stay away.
She’s also rebuilding her life with support from Diana Bitner, MD, a Spectrum Health obstetrician gynecologist who heads the Spectrum Health Cancer Menopause and Sexual Health Survivorship Clinic.
“Survivorship is just so important,” Dr. Bitner said. “We really want to support people emotionally, physically and mentally.”
In addition to connecting patients to yoga and acupuncture and promoting nutrition and heart health, Dr. Bitner and her team help patients with menopause symptoms and sexual health.
“All the things that affect day-to-day life.”
For Libner, whose extreme menopausal symptoms left her sleepless and exhausted, this included hormone replacement therapy. She also underwent vaginal therapy so she could again enjoy a physical relationship with Larry, her partner of more than 20 years, who supported her through her worst experiences as she battled cancer.
“Survivorship is about more than surviving cancer,” Dr. Bitner said. “It is about returning to feeling like yourself and staying healthy in every other possible way. It means getting back to having more energy, a strong sex drive and continuous good moods.”
Libner, who is in contact with other cancer patients around the world, said very few have access to the quality of care she has received at the Spectrum Health Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.
“Dr. Bitner just takes care of me,” Libner said. “I feel so fortunate. I couldn’t be in a better place.”
She has had to make some readjustments, of course.
She’s back at work as a dog groomer, but the frequent onset of fatigue means she must rest every afternoon.
“My life is a process of grieving and acceptance,” she said. “I am going to be OK. It’s just different.”
Looking ahead, she’s evaluating the temperaments of her pug puppies and figuring out which one, or two, are ready to train for showing.
“It’s a hobby, but I take it really seriously, too,” said Libner, who has been showing and training dogs since 1974. “And it’s fun.”