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Cancer-Free Frontier: Episode 1, Part 1

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Cancer-Free Frontier: Episode 1, Part 1

Nov 08, 2023

Heather Simonsen interviews Brin Coombs, ovarian cancer patient at Huntsman Cancer Institute, about what it means to deliver a cancer-free frontier.


Heather Simonsen, MA
Public Affairs Manager


Brin Coombs
Ovarian cancer patient at Huntsman Cancer Institute

Episode Transcript

Topics by Timestamp

Welcome and introductions (00:51)

Heather Simonsen: Hello, and welcome to a Cancer-Free Frontier podcast, where we ask the question, can we create a cancer-free frontier? I'm your host, Heather Simonsen.

Today on the podcast, we're talking about the challenges in creating a cancer-free frontier and what Huntsman Cancer Institute is doing to make that vision a reality. We have a remarkable guest joining us this morning. First, we have Brin Coombs from Starr, Idaho. Brin is a wife and the mother of seven-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. Brin also has ovarian cancer. Brin, welcome.

Brin Coombs: Thank you for having me.

Heather Simonsen: I'm just so thrilled that you're here today. I've gotten to know Brin and I can just tell our listeners - you are going to walk away from this podcast feeling different about the world because she is such a special person. Brin, let's dive into your story. When did you first know something wasn't right?

Brin’s Story (01:54)

Brin Coombs: You know, I have to say when I've talked to friends or family members that have had cancer, I felt like there were a lot of signs, they weren't feeling well, they had gone to the doctor a few times. I did not have that experience.

I was actually in Ghana, Africa. I was on a medical mission, just assisting the doctors and nurses there. And I had an amazing time and on the way back, flights are very long. And so, I had to sit in a certain position for many hours. And while I was sitting in my position, I started to have kind of a side ache, like a stitch between my leg and my side. And I kept repositioning myself on the plane and I just couldn’t get comfortable. And when I got home the very next day, I told my husband because we as a family were taking a trip a few days later. I said, “I'm just going to run to the ER. I probably have some kind of infection, get on some antibiotics, and we'll be on our way. So, I'll be started before we go on this next trip.” He asked me, “do you want me to go with you?” And I'm thinking, nothing related to cancer. It's not on my radar at all. And I said, “no, no, no, it's going to be so quick.”

So, I went to the ER and they did a CT scan. And there's a sign in the ER that says if you got a CT scan, you're going to be waiting about three hours. So, I thought I'll take a nap. A few hours later, the doctor came and woke me up. And he just said, “I've reviewed your scans and I've had another doctor review your scans and they're very concerning. We have several large masses in your ovaries, as well as various areas in your in your pelvis.” So, my liver, my diaphragm, and so on. And I said, “well, are we talking about a cyst or could it be cancer?” And he said, “Exactly. I've asked oncology to see you very urgently.” So, I really didn't have a lot of signs. And since I've sort of researched it coming into this, it says 80% of people don't have any symptoms until later stages.

Heather Simonsen: That is so terrifying. And I can only imagine I mean you're a young mother of beautiful boy-girl twins. And in that moment, can you take us to how you were feeling with that very scary news of, this could be anything from a cyst to cancer?

Brin Coombs: I'm not an alarmist. I'm quite a realist. I think I understood that it was cancer, to be honest. Otherwise, they probably wouldn't be sending me to oncology and large masses. So, I pretty well understood that without him saying it.

My mind took such a life shift in that moment. And I was alone, receiving that information. Everything becomes really simplified. That might sound strange, you probably think i’'s going to become more complicated. But you see so clearly the only things that matter, and everything else just falls away. And all I could think about was my family. You know, every mom wants to raise their babies and every wife wants to be sure that her husbanhusband’'s going to be okay. So, there were obviously those thoughts in regard to longevity.

But there were also the thoughts of, what does this look like? I mean, I have no place to start from, this is literally my first rodeo. What does treatment look like? How do we find out what doctor to choose? What hospitals offer various services? Is it going to send us to bankruptcy? You know, all those questions, you start asking yourself, because you have no idea what the costs are, what insurance covers, can you stay where you are? Do you have to move? Are you going to need to get a new job? Do you have to sell your house? I mean, your mind is just moving so fast with so many questions.

Heather Simonsen: I can only imagine. And especially tell us about Starr, Idaho. It sounds so lovely. And I'm actually really jealous because I'm sure the beauty and the charm is what took you there.

Introduction to Starr, Idaho (06:45)

Brin Coombs: Right, so Starr is about 45 minutes outside of Boise. And when we initially moved there, it was a farming community of about 5,000 people. Everybody kind of knew each other, which was wonderful. Anybody would help you with anything. And I'm going to say, quite frankly, that's still true, because going through this situation, I can't believe the amount of help that we've received. It's got rolling hills, orchards, cows, all those fun things. We've just got our first two grocery stores. We just got an Albertson’s. We have two drive-thru’s now. I know that sounds silly, but when you're in a small town like that, every business is a pretty big deal.

Heather Simonsen: For sure. Date night, right? Go through the drive-thru. Those little things are so fun, especially in your small town to be able to get more access. Accessibility is what we're talking about today, because especially when you have a cancer diagnosis, that becomes a challenge and access to top-notch, world-class cancer care that you deserve. Talk to us a little bit about the challenges of traveling far from home for treatment.

The best in humanity (10:00)

Brin Coombs: There are a lot of trials or hardships and challenges with this situation. But I will say there are also these precious experiences that I don't know that I would have gotten any other way. And so, I don't have any hair, my hair fell out, like 13 days after my first chemo. So, my situation is obvious. Of course, most people’s situations are as obvious as mine is just based on the hair loss. But everywhere I go, people are so gracious. I don't care what religion you are, what life status you have, what we're seeing in the media is not entirely reflective of what's going on, because people have come out of the woodwork, literally, to show me and my family love and kindness. I mean, they've mowed our lawn, they've trimmed our bushes, they brought us meals, they've done our laundry, they've watched my kids, which is the most precious thing to me in the world.

But also, when I'm out and about, strangers come up to me, complete strangers come up to me, and they'll ask to pray over me, or they'll ask what they can do for me. I've had people just hear from a friend what was going on with me and they've done something for my family, not knowing us at all. I've cried many times about what I've seen in mankind since this has happened. Because when people are put to the test to rise to the occasion, people everywhere are good.

Heather Simonsen: It's so good to hear that. And you absolutely deserve that, Brin. And that was true with the housing challenge, right? You ended up through a friend that you found housing here?

Housing challenges (12:09)

Brin Coombs: Yes, in fact, we sort of put the word out, because as you said, housing is a challenge if you have a family. Now, Huntsman does have resources for those who live out of the area. There are heavily discounted hotel rooms, there's a lodge, but if you have children, and it's going to be more long term, there just aren't a lot of resources. And as you mentioned, you can't go rent a place for five, six months. No one's going to do that for you. Or so we thought.

But we just put the word out and we told people when we were looking at housing what our situation was, and we had a number of people who offered for us to use their homes, or their extra homes, or their rental homes. And so, it actually didn't end up being as big of a challenge as we really thought it was going to be because so many people said, “I'm going to sacrifice for this family”, which they didn't have to do.

Heather Simonsen: Yeah, totally. That's so good to hear. And yet, it's also difficult. Your kids aren't next to their best friends on the street. They're not at their school at that tender age. Like you said, there's times when you have to be away from them and your heart just aches. Can we even quantify the healing power of family and community? That that is really important, is it not?

The power of support from family (13:47)

Brin Coombs: It's huge. In fact, during our research, we were looking at hospitals that were even further away than Huntsman. As we were gathering our information and we talked to a few people that have been dealing with various types of cancers for quite a long time. And the feedback that we got, which I think was so valuable, and actually sort of really honed in pretty quick, coming to Huntsman. They said, “don't underestimate the value of your family and friends and how important that is to this process.” Because that's the most important thing you're trying to live for anyway. And that being far away can be incredibly isolating.

Heather Simonsen: It really can and this is a major focus of Huntsman Cancer Institute. We serve 17% of the U.S. land mass. That's the largest geographic region of any National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center and we take that very seriously. And so, we have one screening bus. We are acquiring a second one. We are partnering with affiliate hospitals to make it possible for more patients to get world class care where they live. Is there anything else that's made this journey easier for you? You mentioned the housing, which is huge. Is there anything else that's made it easier for you, as far as living so far away from Huntsman Cancer Institute?

Services Huntsman Cancer Institute provides for families (15:29)

Brin Coombs: Yes, a few things. I'll tell you, the community here is wonderful. There's a ton of things for families and even the people in the neighborhood that we lived in created a wonderful sense of community. They helped us out in some times of need, which was really nice. But also, Huntsman Cancer Institute itself, has some dynamics that really made it more comfortable for our family. My kids were going to art therapy and painting. They offer music therapy; my kids were there playing music. They have a Wellness Center. And they also have lists of places that you can go or take your children for therapy. So, they provide a lot of resources for us.

On the emotional side, it was very difficult, especially for my children. Now, my husband, I shouldn't say that. My husband had a lot on his plate, and he was working, and taking care of me, and trying to entertain the children. But the dynamics of our family changing, because I was so sick, was incredibly hard on the kids. It wasn't just moving to a community, it was what was happening inside of our own home, which would happen anywhere. That is, I wasn't with them every day. I wasn't the one taking them on a bike ride, or to the park, or to a class. And they would say today if you asked them, that they don't like cancer very much.

Heather Simonsen: I bet. Totally. And Brin, I won't ever forget the day. It was the day of our open house of our new Katherine F. Kirk Center for Comprehensive Cancer Care and Women’s Cancers. I was on the phone with your husband, and he said, “I am coming.” I could tell it was like, “I'm dropping everything and I'm coming to learn more and to meet you.” And he got in the car and drove with your best friend and showed up. You could just tell how much he loves you and adores you. He went on every floor and looked and just soaked it all in. You could tell his mission was getting you the very best cancer care possible. And wow, what a gift. What a gift.

Brin Coombs: I’m married to a good man. I know not everybody gets that. And I recognize I'm married to a good man.

Heather Simonsen: Your love is apparent and very inspiring. Let's talk about how you're doing now, Brin. How are you?

Health update (18:30)

Brin Coombs: Well, there's obviously a lot of levels to that. Physically, I'm exhausted, to be honest! I'm so tired. But that's not all I am. I still have many days with a lot of great memories and time with friends and family and going to comedy shows and concerts and those kinds of things. I'm at the point in my treatment right now where I have done a number of very heavy rounds of chemo and we are doing scans. That's actually why I'm here right now. We're doing scans to see sort of where that's at and how my body's reacted to the chemo and then, what direction we're taking. Obviously, the hope is that I'm going into what they call maintenance therapy, would be the first part of that. So, I'd come down every 21 days for an infusion.

But also, I have been lucky enough, and this is something in my area that we don't have that Huntsman has and that is, Huntsman does trials of the latest and greatest medications and procedural things. So, I actually qualified for a trial, which I'm so grateful for. I've never been happier to have more disease in my tumor than I was anticipating, which qualified me for this particular trial. But essentially, it's a PARP inhibitor that they've had some really good results with. It’s a chemo pill that I'll just take every day and they’re anticipating that adding years. You can’t beat that.

Heather Simonsen: You cannot beat that. And I'm so glad that you're a part of that trial and that you're doing so well. You and I were talking earlier, it must be so frustrating as a mother, like you said, you're used to volunteering in the class, and you're used to taking them everywhere and it's so frustrating when you're recovering from chemotherapy and you can't do those things.

But I just have the strongest impression that Brin you are showing your children courage in the face of remarkable challenges, awesome challenges, and kids learn by watching, right? They learn from our example more than anything we say. And I think that's pretty amazing that you're teaching them courage, and what is possible, during really hard things.

Brin Coombs: Well, hard things are, they come all our way. And they're going to come my children's way, whether I want it to or not and so I need them to know that no matter what the outcome of this, or any other hard thing that happens in our lives as a family, that we will be able to surrender to what is and find a way to find joy and happiness in life. Whatever the outcome is going to be. We have to be resourceful and find the ways to find joy, outside of life situations that we have no control over.

What does a cancer-free frontier mean to you? (22:06)

Heather Simonsen: That's so profound. I'm tearing up here because I mean, to surrender to what is, what a powerful statement, really for all of us, and the challenges that we face. And finding that joy in every day, however small. Thank you for teaching us that, Brin. The final question I want to ask, which we ask all our guests, what does a cancer-free frontier mean to you?

Brin Coombs: For me, I recognize that I have some privileges in this situation. For instance, our ability to move here. However, I also see there are so many people, even in my own community, that are suffering from various types of cancer that simply can't do what we've done. Everybody should have access to the highest level of care. Even if it's just getting a second opinion, because the area that I'm from, I felt like the people were wonderful. The care I got was great. I would never put them down in any way. However, there are simply resources that an institute that actually does research for cancer, they just have access to groups of collaborators. They have access to the latest and greatest equipment. They have access to medications within trials and things that simply not all hospitals have, whether they want it or not. I believe most doctors want the best for their patients, that they simply may not have access to the resources that a place like Huntsman has. And so, I guess a cancer-free frontier for me would mean everybody has access to the resources for the best health care if they chose to pursue that.

Heather Simonsen: We could not have a better endorsement than that. Thank you for that. And it's so well said, and that is our goal and the challenge to bring that to this vast area that we serve. Brin, it's been such an honor having you here today. I just so appreciate you coming here and sharing your heart with us and your experience. We haven't known each other very long. I feel like you're a soul sister.

Brin Coombs: I like it. I'll take it!

Heather Simonsen: I'm better because I know you, and you're my friend. So, thank you.

Brin Coombs: I feel the same way. Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.

Heather Simonsen: We sincerely thank Brin Coombs for being our guest for part one of this episode. For part two, we'll talk with Dr. Sachin Apte, physician-in-chief at Huntsman Cancer Institute, and Dr. Cornelia Ulrich, our chief scientific officer about the solutions to the challenges Brin talked about.

For additional resources, be sure to check out our show notes. If you want to stay connected with us and be the first to know about our upcoming episodes, don't forget to hit the subscribe button on your favorite podcast platform. We'd truly appreciate it if you could take a moment to leave us a rating or review. Your feedback is incredibly meaningful. And please tell your friends and family about our podcast and share episodes on social media. I'm your host and executive producer of a Cancer-Free Frontier, Heather Simonsen. Avery Schrader is our producer with help from Carly Lehauli and Jill Woods. A special thanks to The Pod Mill and Mix At Six studios for their help with this episode.