Patricia Caggiano: Getting Back to the Good Life After Vulvar Cancer

“Dr. Chu was dynamite. When she walks into a room you know she’s in charge, and when you have cancer, that’s the kind of doctor you want.”
‐Patricia Caggiano

I’m 89 years old, and I love my life. I have a wonderful family who I adore. I have two grown children, four granddaughters, and four great-granddaughters—and a fifth great-grandchild on the way! I’m a fabulous cook and baker, and I love to travel.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, it was a total shock. I’d watched my husband of 50 years die of lung cancer, and I saw what he went through. So I was scared.

A Disturbing Lump

I had previously been diagnosed with eczema in the vaginal area. My gynecologist gave me a cream to apply, and whenever I went to the bathroom, I couldn’t wipe. I had to blot very carefully.

One day in February 2021, I felt a little hard thing on the lip of my vagina. At first it was about the size of a pea, but it kept getting bigger and bigger, and within a few weeks it got to be the size of an apricot. I knew something was radically wrong.

The day after Easter, my daughter was driving me to my regular doctor’s appointment, and I told her about the lump. She said, “Mom, you’ve got to go to the gynecologist right away!’” We called my gynecologist and he said, “As soon as you leave your regular doctor, come straight here.”

He only examined me for about two minutes before he said, “I want you to see Dr. Christina Chu at Fox Chase.”

Dr. Chu, a surgical gynecologic oncologist, was able to see me right away. She did a biopsy, and about a week later she gave me the diagnosis: vulvar cancer.

Getting Expert Care

Dr. Chu said I should have surgery to remove the lump and one of the lymph nodes in my groin area. If the cancer spread, she said that’s the first place it would go.

I thought about having the surgery done at another hospital where my daughter’s girlfriend works, because it’s always comforting to have the people you love close by, especially if I were to possibly get stuck in the hospital due to COVID-19.

But then I learned that Fox Chase had recruited Dr. Chu because she was one of the top experts in the country for my type of cancer. Vulvar cancer isn’t very common, and when you have an unusual cancer, you want to see a real specialist. So I decided to stick with Fox Chase.

Going Into Surgery

I had a radical complete vulvectomy and a lymphadenectomy. That means they removed the entire left-side lip of my vagina, as well as the lymph node on that side.

The surgery itself was easy. I had surgery on May 11 and went home two days later. I had no pain, no nothing.

The nursing staff was out of this world. Elaine Hawe was the nurse who took care of me when I came out of surgery. I didn’t have any pain, but I was starving. “The kitchen closes in five minutes, but I’ll see what I can do,” she said. This angel, after being on her feet all day, was able to track down a box lunch for me at 7:30 at night. She was fabulous.

Dr. Chu was dynamite. She’s very no-nonsense. When she walks into a room you know she’s in charge, and when you have cancer, that’s the kind of doctor you want. Most important, she really was excellent. She did the surgery and got all the cancer out.

Getting My Life Back

The hardest part of my cancer journey was waiting for the results of the biopsies. I had to go through that twice, first for the initial diagnosis, and once again after surgery to find out if the cancer had spread to my lymph node. I don’t like waiting around, so that really was tough.

Fortunately, the results came back negative. Dr. Chu got all the cancer out, and that meant I didn’t need radiation.

My recovery was easy. I think the first day home from the hospital I sat on one of those donut cushions, but that was it. I never took any painkillers—not even an aspirin.

Three weeks after surgery I drove myself down to Cape May, New Jersey, for a week-long vacation. I stayed in a lovely hotel and had some wonderful meals. I’m now back to doing everything I was doing before. I like working in my garden and doing crafts. I try to keep busy, take my mind off the bad things and put it on the good.

I was so scared when I was diagnosed with cancer. I wish I could have talked with someone who went through what I was going through, someone who could tell me it wasn’t going to be a nightmare. In the end, vulvar cancer took up a month of my life. One month, and that was it—it was gone. Now I’m back to doing every good thing I was doing before.

Learn more about treatment for vulvar cancer at Fox Chase Cancer Center.