Survivor Spotlight By her side: Facing cancer together

by Christine Cleary

In their 44 years of marriage, Mary and Jim Kenn have gone through  a lot side by side … including Mary's battles with cancer.In their 44 years of marriage, Mary and Jim Kenn have gone through a lot side by side … including Mary’s battles with cancer.

Mary Kenn sits at home in Bridgewater, Mass., surrounded by familiar comforts. Framed photos of her three grown children and their families hang on her wall; the scent of fresh home-baked blueberry muffins fills the air; and, most reassuring of all, her companion of the last 44 years, her husband, Jim, is at her side.

There’s a soothing harmony between the Kenns, one in which their sentences and stories blend into one voice, even when they’re describing Mary’s three bouts with women’s cancers. “I get very involved,” Jim says, using the word “we” when talking about his wife’s treatments.

Mary Kenn became a patient at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center (DF/BWCC) in spring 2008, when she was diagnosed with a rare cancer of the uterus and chose an experimental treatment. But her saga with women’s cancers goes back to 1997, when she underwent a lumpectomy for breast cancer; a year later she learned she had a different type in her other breast.

“The second cancer required the whole works – mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation,” recalls Kenn, who received her care at a local hospital. “Each time something came up we’d say, ‘we’ll get this fixed,'” adds Jim.

Mary enjoyed good health while taking several medications to help prevent a recurrence. Nearly 10 years later, however, she noticed some mild vaginal bleeding. Her local gynecologist recommended a hysterectomy, and the lab report after that procedure showed carcinosarcoma of the uterus, an unusual type of cancer that grows in the muscle and lining of the uterus.

A second surgery was scheduled to fully stage the cancer, and although biopsies showed no sign of cancer beyond the uterus, Kenn elected to enroll in a clinical trial to give herself the best chances that the cancer would not return. “I thought this would be like an insurance policy,” she explains. “It would also help doctors find treatments for other women.”

The trial is testing a combination of radiation therapy with the chemotherapy drugs oxaliplatin and gemcitabine, a protocol used for other aggressive cancers, says Kenn’s Dana-Farber oncologist Susana Campos, MD, MPH. “We shared with the Kenns what we knew, and what we didn’t know about this very rare type of uterine cancer,” explains Dr. Campos. “For example, we do know there is a high risk of spread to the abdomen. But because the cancer is uncommon, there really is no standard of care, so an experimental approach made sense.”

Kenn, 65, finished treatment in December 2008 and returns for scans and check-ups. She and her husband sing the praises of DF/BWCC and especially their devoted nurse, Christin Whalen, RN. “I was nervous coming into Boston, and Christin put me at ease,” Kenn recalls. “She hugged us when we arrived, and often called us at home to see how I was.”

Today, the Kenns relish their roles as “Mima” and “Bampa” for their five grandchildren. Oldest daughter Alicia and her own daughter, Amanda, 22, live with them, and their other two children and families are nearby. A college student studying to be a nurse, Amanda says, “I love my Mima and Bampa more than oxygen.”

Thanks to her renewed health, Kenn can continue with one of her favorite hobbies: embroidering blankets and other gifts. After buying a computerized sewing machine she attended an embroidery class. As usual, her husband, Jim, was at her side.

Courtesy of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

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