Ovarian cancer survivor Joahnna Navarro-Lalic fought back the disease three times. Thanks to the compassionate, life-saving care she received at Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Center, she is now an impressive clinical trials and cancer drug discovery success story.
It was to be the start of a wonderful new life in Canada for newcomer Joahnna Navarro-Lalic, her husband Jerry and their three young children.
But just months after emigrating from the Philippines in 2006, Navarro-Lalic was diagnosed with ovarian cancer so advanced and aggressive that her life expectancy was less than five years, even with treatment.
Spotlight on Joahnna Navarro-Lalic, patient with ovarian cancer
“We lived in a basement in Mississauga at the time,” says Navarro-Lalic, who has since settled in Brampton with her family. “We didn’t have immediate family to help us and we were dependent on an income because I hadn’t found a job in Canada yet.”
“Medical books have been rewritten because of her journey and how well she is today.” — Shirley Ann Fobler, Clinical Research Study Coordinator
It has been 15 years since then, and Navarro-Lalic is alive and well thanks to the top-quality care she received at Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Center (JHCC).
This included participating in a clinical trial — a type of research designed to determine the safety and effectiveness of potential new treatments. The drug tested, Navarro-Lalic, saved her life and was eventually approved for use in Canada, allowing many ovarian cancer patients to live longer than anyone could have dreamed of just a few years ago.
Life changing cancer treatment
The Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Center is the only hospital in the region that can treat patients for all forms of cancer, with staff and doctors assisting more than 26,000 cancer patients each year.
“I couldn’t even say care. I think it’s more love. Love for me and my family. I experienced that at the Juravinski Cancer Center.” — Joahnna Navarro-Lalic, patient with ovarian cancer
It is a premier Ontario location for patients with uterine, ovarian, cervical, vulvar and trophoblastic gestational disease, which are rare tumors that develop during pregnancy. This program serves a large population across the region and also conducts regular clinics at the Thunder Bay Cancer Center.
When Navarro-Lalic was first diagnosed in 2007, their youngest daughter Micaela was just one year old. Big sister Rebecca was six and her brother Zachary was nine. Navarro-Lalic was not expected to live long enough to see Micaela enter kindergarten or the two older children finish elementary school.
But thanks to the life-changing cancer treatment she received at JHCC, she survived to dance at Zachary’s wedding, celebrate Rebecca’s acceptance into college and watch Micaela enter 12th grade this year.
Navarro-Lalic’s first cancer attack was operated on in Stratford, ON, where her family doctor worked. “He was the brother of our family doctor in the Philippines.”
Given the option of undergoing chemotherapy at a downtown Toronto hospital or the JHCC, she chose Hamilton.
Treatment beat the cancer back, but a year later, in 2008, it returned and she was treated to another round of chemotherapy at the JHCC.
When it came back a third time in 2010, she was treated again with chemotherapy and also offered the opportunity to participate in a clinical trial for a drug called olaparib. This oral treatment targets and blocks the genetic repair of cancer cells, causing their death. At that time it was a completely new drug.
“DR. Jimenez is my rock.” — Joahnna Navarro-Lalic, patient with ovarian cancer
“In 2010, we didn’t know much about this drug,” says Dr. Waldo Jimenez, Navarro-Lalic oncologist and director of gynecologic oncology at JHCC. “But thanks to the clinical trial and patients like Joahnna who volunteered to take part, we now know that this drug can be very effective.”
Today, JHCC’s groundbreaking cancer research includes 260 ongoing clinical trials. This critical research ensures that patients receive the most current and effective cancer treatments and that new ways to treat cancer are discovered that benefit patients around the world.
The study Navarro-Lalic participated in is long over, but she continues to take olaparib pills daily as maintenance therapy and visits the JHCC every six months for follow-up with her oncology team.
“With the support of this maintenance program, she has remained in remission and is considered cured,” says Jimenez.
Registered Nurse Shirley Ann Fobler has worked closely with Jimenez and Navarro-Lalic for seven years in her role as Clinical Research Studies Coordinator at the JHCC.
“The medical books were rewritten because of her journey and how well she is today,” says Fobler. “Everywhere that particular drug goes, its story is told.”
spotlight on dr Waldo Jimenez, director of gynecologic oncology
Jimenez has been mentoring Navarro-Lalic since 2010, when her cancer returned for the third time and she entered the clinical trial.
“I feel like we’re her quarterback leading the offensive against her cancer…” – Dr. Waldo Jimenez
“Dr. Jimenez is my rock,” says Navarro-Lalic, who is deeply grateful for the care she has received and considers him family.
Jimenez leads the specialist team required to treat gynecological cancers. Research is another important focus, with opportunities for some patients to participate in national and international clinical trials.
One of Jimenez’s most enjoyable aspects of his job is building relationships with other doctors, nurses, other hospital staff and patients. “I enjoy coming to work every day,” he says.
His team offers surgeries, systemic treatments such as chemotherapy and immunotherapy, and palliative care.
“We accompany the patient throughout their journey. I feel like their quarterback leading the offense against their cancer but also working with them as part of their team.”
Jimenez hopes for future growth for the department so the team can continue to provide top-quality care for the increasing number of patients that come through their doors.
Spotlight on Shirley Ann Fobler, Registered Nurse and Clinical Research Studies Coordinator
Ask Navarro-Lalic about Fobler and she’ll grab a handkerchief to wipe her eyes.
“I’m about to start crying,” says Navarro-Lalic. “It’s not just a nurse-patient relationship for me. We talk about our children. We’re talking about life. Shirley Ann works hand in hand with Dr. Jimenez and his team and is always there for me.”
Fobler has been an HHS registered nurse for 32 years, always in gynecology. When the opportunity to work in clinical trials presented itself, she decided to apply and has been in the coordinator role for 10 years.
“It’s exciting to be part of research that could potentially make a big difference for our patients,” says Fobler. “That motivates me a lot and that’s why I enjoy coming to work every day. It is a privilege to be part of someone’s story.”
Illuminight: Help shine a light on gynecological cancers
Illuminight is an annual fundraiser aimed at spotlighting the nation’s leading, life-saving cancer care and research at JHCC. This year, we’re celebrating Illuminight with a five-part series of stories and videos from September 22 through October 11, covering gynecological, blood and hepato-pancreato-biliary (HPB) cancer treatment, cancer research and health justice.
Tuesday 27 Sept: Leukemia diagnosis catches breast cancer survivors by surprise
Thursday 29 Sept: A well-oiled “cancer treatment machine” gives the Hamiltonian quality of life
Tuesday, Oct. 4th: Partnering for equitable, quality cancer care
Tuesday October 11: Lung cancer research and treatment works wonders
Since 2018, Illuminight has raised more than $500,000 to support the needs of the top priority cancer program at Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Center. Help us shine a light on cancer and donate today.