Friday, June 24, 2016
Vilma Rosario had just been cleared of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer, when she was diagnosed with early-stage ovarian cancer. She had already postponed her wedding once before and wasn’t going to let the disease steal her joy a second time. With support from their three young children, she and her partner, Michele Freeman, wed over Memorial Day weekend.
- Vilma Rosario is fighting cancer a second time.
- After she beat lymphoma, she learned during a routine checkup that she had a suspicious growth on her ovary.
- MSK gynecologic cancer surgeon Ginger Gardner determined that the mass was ovarian cancer and performed a hysterectomy and removal of the cancer.
- Vilma didn’t let chemotherapy treatments stop her from celebrating her wedding.
Planning a wedding is stressful. Planning a wedding in the throes of cancer? That’s downright exhausting. But a career in the New York City Police Department had taught Vilma Rosario that she could rise to meet life’s biggest challenges.
It was the spring of 2015 and she was feeling optimistic: She had just finished treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and had turned her attention to her May 2016 wedding to Michele Freeman, her partner of 11 years. But at a follow-up doctor’s appointment just months after she was declared cancer free, a PET scan showed she had a cyst on her ovary.
“I was like, ‘This is not happening again,’” the 50-year-old from Otisville, New York, recalls.
She didn’t know what would happen next, but she had four reasons to stay strong: Michele and their three children, 6-year-old Trystan and 3-year-old twins Isabella and Jonah.
Vilma’s doctor told her to see a gynecologic oncologist to have the mass examined. Since she had beaten lymphoma with a team of oncologists at Memorial Sloan Kettering, she knew that’s where she wanted to go. She made an appointment with gynecologic surgeon Ginger Gardner.
“The first meeting was really positive,” Vilma recalls. “As soon as we started talking, I took a liking to her. She was very reassuring.”
Dr. Gardner explained that the ovarian tumor could be benign (not cancerous), malignant (cancerous) or borderline (recurrent but slow-growing). She recommended a tissue analysis to get a better look at it. She prepared Vilma for the possibility of ovarian cancer, though the presentation of her disease wasn’t typical.
“In most ovarian cancer patients, there’s also disease in many other areas of the abdomen and pelvis,” Dr. Gardner says.
But Dr. Gardner said that if she did see cancer, she would take the appropriate steps to complete the surgical clearance for that diagnosis.
When Vilma awoke from surgery, she knew Dr. Gardner had found cancer and performed the more extended procedure — the simple ovary removal should have taken an hour, but it was nighttime.
A Diagnosis and a Wedding
The surgical report confirmed that Vilma had early-stage ovarian cancer. The timing couldn’t have been worse — Vilma and Michele were planning to marry in four months, after postponing their wedding the first time they faced cancer together. They didn’t want to delay their special day a second time.
“We’ve planned this twice already,” Vilma recalls thinking. “Why keep putting it off?”
So they made a plan: Michele graciously stepped in to handle wedding planning while Vilma focused on getting better. She started chemotherapy at MSK’s Westchester location in West Harrison, New York, close to home.
When the big day arrived, Vilma was halfway through chemotherapy. Although she contemplated wearing a wig and even bought six to choose from, she decided to forgo them all in favor of her signature bandana and hat. “That’s how I feel comfortable,” she says.
With 100 of their friends and family looking on in support and love, Vilma and Michele wed on May 28, 2016, in Wappingers Falls, New York. The warm Memorial Day weekend sunshine was perfect for the outdoor festivities. Vilma and Michele honored their children with starring roles in the ceremony: Trystan walked Michele down the aisle, Isabella served as flower girl, and Jonah was the ring bearer.
Their officiant included Catholic and Native American elements in the ceremony, weaving together traditions important to each bride. He also performed a special blessing over the newlyweds and their children, which Vilma says was a highlight of the day.
Vilma and Michele are planning to honeymoon on a cruise around the Caribbean in 2017, but first they have another milestone to celebrate: Vilma’s final chemo treatment on June 22.
“They’re such a fantastic couple,” Dr. Gardner says. “Vilma’s clearly a fighter and she’s well on her way to being past this.”
These two already know how to be there for each other in sickness and in health. Now they’re ready for the next chapter in their story.