As a 22-year-old bride-to-be, Haley hardly had cancer treatment at the top of her mind. But after a startling diagnosis and limited treatment options in her home state of Texas, she followed her oncologist’s urging and traveled to Memorial Sloan Kettering. Now, she’s back home and thriving.
- Haley had pain that wasn’t getting any better.
- She was shocked to learn she had ovarian cancer.
- When treatment in her home state of Texas didn’t work, she came to Memorial Sloan Kettering at the urging of her doctor.
- There, Dennis Chi performed a life-saving surgery that removed all her cancer.
- Now, Haley is back home and healthy.
By all accounts, 2015 looked like it was going to be Haley Houston Odlozil’s year. She was newly engaged to her high school sweetheart, Taylor, and in the midst of planning their February 2016 nuptials. When she wasn’t trying on dresses or selecting flower arrangements, her work for a local jewelry designer kept her busy.
But the year got off to a rocky start when Haley started feeling under the weather in January.
“I started noticing I was exhausted all the time, I had trouble losing weight, and it felt like my uterus was expanding,” recalls the 22-year-old from Houston.
A Pap smear at her gynecologist’s office showed nothing abnormal, so Haley pushed the thought to the back of her mind. Months later, she still wasn’t feeling well, but her doctor told her not to worry. Finally, in October 2015, Haley insisted on an ultrasound. The scan picked up a mass in her abdomen. Despite the serious news, Haley was not particularly concerned.
“When you’re young, you think you’re invincible,” she recalls. “I remember thinking, Whatever, it’s probably something they can surgically remove.”
So Haley waited until December to undergo a follow-up CT scan. The next day, her gynecologist called to say that she had made an appointment for Haley with an oncologist and that she needed to go immediately. Haley was stunned.
“I was thinking, Isn’t an oncologist a cancer doctor? I couldn’t even fathom it,” she says.
At the oncologist’s office, Haley and her family learned she had ovarian cancer, and that it was advanced.
“All of our jaws dropped,” she recalls. “Ovarian cancer is something that older women get. My grandmother had it. I was about to get married and start my life.”
The Wedding Is On
With her big day just two months away, Haley was determined not to let the diagnosis steal her joy. She worked with her vendors to arrange a “first look” photo session so that Taylor could see her as a bride before she began treatment. Haley then underwent 12 weeks of chemotherapy, finishing her last round two days before her wedding.
The celebration went on as planned in February 2016. Haley and Taylor delighted in the day and were able to create many happy memories.
“One thing that stuck out was the preacher saying to us, ‘Y’all are living out your vows each day already,’” she recalls.
Sadly, though, their joy was short-lived. Just a few days after the ceremony, Haley learned that the chemotherapy hadn’t worked. Her cancer had actually progressed over the last few months. The original plan — to surgically remove the tumor after chemotherapy shrunk it — was no longer an option. Haley was given six months to one year to live.
In an effort to make the most of their time together, Haley and Taylor embarked on their honeymoon to Hawaii. While they were away, her parents went from doctor to doctor, looking for another treatment approach, but they came up empty-handed. A major cancer center near their home even told them to take Haley home and put her in hospice care.
But the family wasn’t ready to give up just yet, and neither was Haley’s oncologist. She had studied under Dennis Chi, Deputy Chief of the Gynecology Service and Head of Ovarian Cancer Surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering, and knew he had special expertise with complex cases like Haley’s.
“My oncologist said, ‘I know a surgeon in New York at Memorial Sloan Kettering, and he’s a legend,’” Haley remembers.
Meeting Dr. Chi
One week later, Haley and her parents were on a plane to New York. At their first meeting, Dr. Chi thought of his own family.
“My daughter is seven months younger than Haley,” Dr. Chi says. “My heart went out to her and her parents. She’s too young to have to deal with this.”
But despite the severity and the rarity of the case — Dr. Chi says that less than 5 percent of the ovarian cancer patients he sees are younger than 30 — he came bearing good news.
“Dr. Chi said, ‘I think I can help you,’ and just hearing those words, it was like we won the World Series,” Haley recalls.
If the circumstances were different, Haley’s oncologist in Texas might have put her on another chemotherapy drug to delay the cancer from getting worse. But because Haley was in the prime of her life, Dr. Chi thought she would be a good candidate for surgery. Though Haley’s case was unique, he knew from his experience that patients who underwent surgery for recurrent ovarian cancer fared better than those who went on to receive more chemotherapy. (Just recently, research presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual meeting echoed Dr. Chi’s assessment.)
Haley’s cancer wasn’t recurrent, but her situation was so dire, Dr. Chi knew he had to see what was possible for her.
“I didn’t know if I could get all of the visible cancer out, but I knew I could get close,” he says.
“He Got It All!”
Haley stayed in New York for the next few weeks to prepare for surgery. In April 2016, Dr. Chi operated for nearly nine hours on his young patient.
The situation felt a bit too surreal to Haley as she came out of the anesthesia. She woke up expecting to find a colostomy bag, but even though they did have to take out a piece of her colon, Dr. Chi and his team were able to reconstruct her intestines so that she wouldn’t need a bag. And she wouldn’t believe why her husband was so excited.
“He was yelling, ‘He got it all! He got it all!’” Haley recalls. “It took Dr. Chi three or four times to tell me that he did before I really believed it.”
Haley’s cancer had spread so much that Dr. Chi removed her uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, nearby lymph nodes, appendix, spleen, and gallbladder, along with a piece of her colon, portions of her liver, and the tumors near the blood supply around the liver. He also removed the outer lining of her diaphragm and bladder to reduce the chances of the cancer’s return. Haley stayed in the hospital for two weeks after the procedure and then remained in New York for another month before getting the OK to return home to Texas.
It’s been one year since the surgery, and Haley is in good health and enjoying life as a newlywed. She’s gone back to work and even started a blog, From Fighting to Thriving, detailing her experiences. And she and Taylor have plans to soon expand their family: A close friend recently offered to be a surrogate for them.
Haley takes medicine to keep any lingering cancer cells in her body at bay and regularly checks in with her oncology team in Texas. She comes to New York every six months to meet with Dr. Chi.
“I hope she never needs me to do another operation on her again, but if she does, I’ll be here for her,” he says.
Haley says she’s grateful to have unfailing support from her family, friends, and her medical teams in Texas and New York as they navigate their next steps.
“Dr. Chi doing that surgery saved my life and gave me a second chance,” Haley says. “He is a miracle worker.”