For Northern Kentucky resident Rae Jean Jansen, a cancer diagnosis was the last thing on her mind as she prepared for Christmas 2015.
Concerning symptoms like unusually heavy bleeding sent Rae Jean twice to the ER, but she received no answers. Finally, Rae Jean scheduled an appointment with Abby Loftus-Smith, MD, an OBGYN at St. Elizabeth Healthcare Women’s Health. Dr. Smith immediately felt a mass during Rae Jean’s pelvic exam. Shortly after, Rae Jean’s biopsy results came back with the kind of life-changing news no one wants to hear: the mass was cervical cancer.
Rae Jean’s cancer journey at St. Elizabeth
In early January 2016, Rae Jean was referred to Kevin Schuler, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at St. Elizabeth Healthcare, to discuss the next steps.
“When I met with Dr. Schuler, we were optimistic that a hysterectomy would remove the tumor,” says Rae Jean. “But when I woke up in the recovery room after surgery, I lifted my gown and there was no scar. The tumor was too large for surgery.”
Dr. Schuler and his team created a new treatment plan consisting of chemotherapy and radiation. Rae Jean says it took a toll on her — leaving her off work and bedridden for months.
“The radiation was so hard on me,” says Rae Jean. “I had sacral stress fractures from the radiation that essentially kept me in bed. It was terrible.”
Finally, in April of 2016, Rae Jean received the happy news she had been hoping for: she was cancer-free.
Radiation effects leave a long-lasting impact
As Rae Jean slowly returned to work and daily activities, building back the pieces of her life that she put on hold during treatment, she learned something else —radiation treatment had a permanent impact on her health.
“I had back pain that kept getting worse, and so did my hip and pelvic pain,” says Rae Jean. “It was affecting my daily life. But I never wanted to complain because I know so many cancer patients have it so much worse. I accepted that this was my new normal.”
At each follow-up visit with Dr. Schuler, Rae Jean would describe her increasing discomfort. Dr. Schuler referred her to pelvic floor physical therapy at St. Elizabeth, which helped her bladder and bowel issues, but didn’t eliminate her pelvic pain. Unfortunately, her back and hip pain also continued to escalate — sometimes reaching a seven out of ten on the pain scale.
“Someone told me that radiation is the gift that keeps on giving — and for me, they were right,” says Rae Jean. “It got to the point where I couldn’t lay on my side for more than five minutes because my back pain was so intense.”
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy brings new hope for pain relief
In early 2020, Dr. Schuler suggested hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Rae Jean was apprehensive — the significant time commitment and her claustrophobia were major factors to consider. But she knew she needed help and met with Roger Teller, MD, wound care specialist at St. Elizabeth Healthcare. Dr. Teller agreed that hyperbaric oxygen therapy could significantly improve her symptoms from late-effect radiation.
“Hyperbaric oxygen therapy can reverse the detrimental and devastating effects of radiation therapy on the normal tissue within the radiation field,” says Dr. Teller. “Approximately 50% of our hyperbaric oxygen therapy patients are radiation patients.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Rae Jean chose to put her treatment plan on hold until mid-March of 2021. Once she began hyperbaric oxygen therapy, she went five days a week for a total of 40 treatment sessions. It was a huge commitment — but she quickly felt right at home with the St. Elizabeth Wound Care Center staff.
“Rae Jean is such a delight; our whole team loves her,” says Tracy Hatter, LPN, CHT, HSD, hyperbaric oxygen therapy technician at St. Elizabeth Healthcare. “You get to know someone when you spend so much time together every day. We knew how much she wanted to get her life back — to work and to be independent — and we were determined to help her get there.”
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy “dives” patients with 100% oxygen between 33 and 44 feet below sea level. The process pushes oxygen through the capillaries and targets cells in damaged areas, flooding in oxygenated blood to promote healing.
Rae Jean’s radiation treatment had killed her cancer cells, but it also destroyed the surrounding tissue in her pelvis, back and hips. Her quality of life was impacted in countless ways, including painful intercourse, inability to sleep on her side and constant, back pain, regardless of whether she was sitting, standing or lying down. “At that point, she was ready to try anything to relieve her chronic pain,” says Tracy. “Rae Jean didn’t want to be on long-term pain medicine and she was ready to take back her life.”
It took a few weeks of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for Rae Jean to start noticing a difference — but once she did, she continued to improve steadily. At the end of her 40 sessions, her back and hip pain were completely gone, and her pelvic pain had dropped significantly on the pain scale.
“It was an absolute game-changer,” says Rae Jean. “I encourage people — especially women struggling with pain — to consider hyperbaric oxygen therapy. It truly can make such a difference in your life, your intimacy and your overall well-being.”
Rae Jean might undergo another 10-20 sessions in the future to see if she can eliminate her pelvic pain, but for now, she’s thrilled with her reclaimed quality of life. She encourages women in her cancer support group to ask their doctors about hyperbaric oxygen therapy and hopes that her story will encourage others to seek treatment.
“I’m an open book, especially after going through such an intimate form of cancer,” says Rae Jean. “I’m an advocate for women not being afraid to talk about private things — to own our health and take control of the conversation.”
Make an appointment today at one of our wound care centers
Learn more about our wound care centers [link to: https://www.stelizabeth.com/medical-services/wound-care-center]or schedule an appointment today at one of the four Patrick T. Birrer Wound Care Center locations:
- Covington – (859) 655-1100
- Dearborn – (812) 537-8376
- Ft. Thomas – (859) 572-3830
- Grant County– (859) 655-1100
All locations are members of the Healogics Network, the nation’s largest advanced wound care service provider. Distinctions for our wound care services include being named a Healogics Center of Distinction, Healogics Center of the Year and Healogics Center of Excellence.