A Family Gathers to Fight Hereditary Cancer

Author:  Laurel Skurko, former Marketing Director, UCSF Radiology and Biomedical Imaging

A cancer diagnosis can be terrifying news. That’s why it’s so important to have the right people around you, both on your care team and in your personal life. But for many people who have cancer, a firm diagnosis at least shines a light into great uncertainty and can illuminate a path toward healing.

Azela Conejero finally received a diagnosis of ovarian cancer in February 2015. “In January, I didn’t notice any actual symptoms, but I was worried that my abdomen seemed big,” she says. Only slightly concerned, she went ahead with a scheduled vacation. On return, her doctor diagnosed acid reflux. That made sense, since, as Azela describes her experience, “It felt tight when I stood up, and I was having constant regurgitation,” symptoms which could be brought on by the common digestive condition.

However, when five days of acid reflux treatment did not change her symptoms, Azela's doctor referred her to another specialist, who then referred her to UCSF for treatment. Imaging exams conducted by UCSF Radiology confirmed the presence of several ovarian tumors. Azela underwent surgery with Lee-may Chen, MD, the director of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at UCSF Health, and began chemotherapy treatment approximately two months after noticing the first abdominal distention. Her first rounds of treatment successfully attacked the original tumors. She is now being treated for a recurrence.

Because of her diagnosis, Azela underwent genetic testing and discovered she has a mutation of the BRCA1 gene which can predispose some people to developing cancer. Her sister had previously been diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer; Azela, too, discovered she carries the gene mutation. Genetic testing and knowledge of personal cancer predisposition has helped many patients be more vigilant about cancer screenings, which can lead to earlier diagnosis and successful treatment. The result of Azela's BRCA1 testing had an impact on the rest of the family.

When her daughter Ginger Conejero, a well-known public figure and reporter in the Philippines, took a leave of absence and came to California to help her mother, Ginger herself underwent genetic testing. Her results did not show a mutation. Ginger has since reported - in both in the Philippines and in Philippine-American news sources - on the importance of genetic testing and the experience of helping her mother along her healing path. When Azela needed more help, Ginger returned to the Bay Area where she now reports and produces for ABS-CBN's The Filipino Channel.

Azela has relied on her strong family ties and her deep faith in her battle against cancer.

“Family support is very important,” she says. “My daughter left her job; my husband has been wonderful. I could feel their love for me.” Azela believes that faith and support helped guide her to the right medical team. “I also really believe in Dr. Chen. She and the UCSF team said, ‘You’re in good hands.’ Those words were healing to me.”

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