Stephanie Ross of Hannibal, Missouri knows about cancer. She watched her brother fight it twice, as well as two grandparents, and several other family members. From that she knows what some symptoms can be. So when Stephanie began experiencing similar symptoms in 2008, she went to the doctor and was diagnosed with Stage 3 rectal cancer.
During her treatments Stephanie developed a friendship with Ellen Taylor, RN, who worked with cancer patients. The two had gone to high school together and Ellen was very supportive of Stephanie, a rock for her to lean on during her cancer journey. After surgery and six months of chemotherapy, Stephanie’s cancer was in remission and remained so for 14 years. When Stephanie began experiencing symptoms again in March of 2022, she wasn’t sure where her friend Ellen was working, but knew she wanted to get her treatment wherever she was. Stephanie says, “It’s often the oncology nurses with you while you are being treated and having Ellen there made it a much better experience!”
After learning that her friend was working at Hannibal Regional Cancer Institute, Stephanie made an appointment with Kevin Palka, MD, at the Institute. Dr. Palka recounts, “I first met Stephanie as a patient at Hannibal Regional Cancer Institute in early 2022, when she was diagnosed with advanced rectal cancer. She suffers from Lynch Syndrome, which is an inherited genetic condition that puts patients at risk for a variety of tumors, including colorectal, uterine, stomach, and pancreas cancers. Stephanie had already had treatment for colon cancer when she was in her 30s, and now she had to deal with a second cancer in her 40s. And this time around she was having a very difficult time tolerating the standard chemotherapy for rectal cancer. I reached out to a colleague, a GI cancer specialist at Siteman, to help with Stephanie’s treatment.”
“In May we decided to change her to a brand new immunotherapy drug called Dostarlimab, which had recently shown to be very effective in Lynch syndrome patients with advanced rectal cancer. Stephanie was the first patient in Missouri to receive this innovative treatment, and she has responded beautifully to the Dostarlimab. Even better, she has had absolutely no side effects! Shortly after starting treatment, the study using Dostarlimab was published in the New England Journal of Medicine and was a major topic at the international oncology meeting in Chicago. I am proud that Stephanie had the courage to try a brand new treatment. I am also proud that Hannibal Regional Cancer Institute can offer our patients cutting-edge therapies to improve their cancer care.”
The impact Dr. Palka has had on Stephanie’s life has been tremendous. “I can’t even put into words what it means to have a doctor like Dr. Palka,” shares Stephanie. “After I developed a reaction to the 2nd chemo treatment, a lot of doctors would have just treated me based on standards of care and do what the guidelines tell them to do. Instead of just doing that, Dr. Palka reached out to his colleagues at Siteman Cancer and at Barnes Jewish. That is how I got started with the immunotherapy so early - because those colleagues knew about this new immunotherapy that was happening – and Dr. Palka knew we needed to try it.
Doing the immunotherapy meant Stephanie could avoid chemotherapy. When she went through chemo treatments during her first round with cancer, Stephanie had little to no strength - simply taking a shower was enough to exhaust her and send her back to bed. As a wife, mother of two active kids and a counselor at Hannibal High School, this was unacceptable to her. The immunotherapy allowed Stephanie to continue working, continue going to her kids’ games, continue feeling like a normal person - not just a cancer patient.
Stephanie is now Dr. Palka’s #1 fan. "I would not be where I am today if Dr. Palka didn’t care about his patients and want the best for them. He took the time and stopped what he was doing and got other doctors involved. I’m not sick now, I feel great. I can’t express how grateful I am for Dr. Palka and the entire team at Hannibal Regional. I can’t thank the Hannibal Regional Cancer Institute enough. Dr. Palka, Ellen, Nicole and Nancy - they always know me by my name and greet me. They are 5-star, I wouldn’t want to be any other place! I can even text Dr. Palka and he responds to me! A lot of people think they have to go to the big city for better treatment. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. There is something to be said for being able to walk in the Cancer Institute and have everyone know you, know your situation, where you work and your kids. God is using my story for good. I hope no one has to go through this, but if they do, they will be in excellent hands with Dr. Palka. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind!”
“If it weren’t for Dr. Palka to oversee my care, I’m not sure where I’d be. He’s pretty amazing, and this community is very, very lucky to have him.” To find out more about Hannibal Regional Cancer Institute or to schedule an appointment with Dr. Palka, call 573-629-3500.