Julia Falleti was a healthy woman in her 70s who had been hospitalized only for the births of her son and daughter. Two and a half years ago, when her husband came down with a cold and Falleti developed a bad cough, she figured she had caught the cold from him. But then, she recalls, “I started to cough quite a bit and was having trouble catching my breath.”
Falleti’s doctor prescribed a cough medication, but it didn’t work. The doctor then ordered a chest X-ray, thinking Falleti might have bronchitis. When it revealed that she had fluid in her lungs, she was sent to a pulmonologist, who drained the fluid. Falleti immediately felt better.
But soon she developed breathing problems again. She returned to the pulmonologist, who again drained the fluid from her lungs and this time sent some of it for testing.
The results showed that Falleti had stage 4 ovarian cancer.
“When my physician told me, you could have knocked me off my chair with a feather,” she says. “My husband was in shock. I listened with great care as the doctor told me I had three to six months to live.”
Later, Falleti called each of her children with the news.
“My daughter, who lives in Florida, was devastated and weeping, as I expected she would be,” Falleti says. “She immediately said we would have to get another opinion.
“My son was very strong for me. He said, ‘We got this, Mom! One day at a time. You are a strong woman and never sick. We’ll get through this.’ With my family’s support, it was the only day I cried.”
Second Opinion at Roswell Park Leads to Clinical Trial
Falleti’s daughter called later that night to tell her mother she had set up an appointment for her at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. Her daughter flew home so the whole family could accompany Falleti to the appointment.
Falleti says when they walked into Roswell Park, “I felt like the hospital opened its arms and embraced me, saying, ‘We are here for you, and we will take care of you. Don’t worry, we have your back.’ What a great feeling that was.”
Falleti met with Emese Zsiros, MD, PhD, Department of Gynecologic Oncology. “After explaining what her prognosis was for me, she told us to think about the treatment plan and let her know our decision. I looked around the room at my family and told her immediately that I wanted her to begin this journey with me. I said, ‘I don’t have time for this; I have people to see, places to go and things to do. So let’s get started,’” Falleti says.
Falleti began chemotherapy and had surgery two months later, followed by more chemotherapy. In February 2019, Dr. Zsiros told her the treatment wasn’t helping her. “That’s when she introduced me to Dr. Odunsi,” Falleti says.
More Time with Family
Kunle Odunsi, MD, PhD, Deputy Director of Roswell Park and Executive Director of the Center for Immunotherapy, told Falleti she was a good candidate for immunotherapy. He talked to her about taking part in a clinical trial and how those work.
“He told me I would be his first immunotherapy clinical trial patient with stage 4 ovarian cancer,” she recalls.
Falleti was an inpatient at Roswell Park for five weeks while participating in the clinical trial, which includes two infusions of T-cells, as well as treatment and toxicity management. Patients then come in for follow-up appointments regularly for a year post-treatment, and then annually for the following 14 years.
“It was tougher than I had anticipated: fever, blisters in my mouth, shots several times a day. But I remained positive and strong. In my heart I was doing this clinical trial in the hope that someday we could find a cure and help all the women who might experience ovarian cancer. The doctors and nurses were phenomenal,” Falleti says.
She saves her highest praise for Dr. Odunsi, who Falleti says “has the kindest and gentlest soul. He is so knowledgeable and always makes me feel hopeful and at peace. He lights up the room when he appears. I have so much confidence in him and all his staff.”
Falleti was pleased with the immunotherapy treatment, which took between one and two hours, compared with chemotherapy treatments, which lasted from four to six hours. Now her treatment plan includes taking an oral chemotherapy pill — and she doesn’t mind the most prominent side effect: losing her hair.
“I sort of like being bald; there’s no worry about shampooing or styling my hair after a shower,” she laughs.
While Falleti has far surpassed the three to six months she thought she had left in life, she has learned to be grateful for the time she has with her family.
Ovarian Cancer Treatment
Ovarian cancer is a rare and complex disease, but at Roswell Park, we see it every day. Read more about this disease, and what treatments we can offer you.Learn More
“Every day is a new day, and I thank the Lord for giving me another day with my family and my only grandchild, who celebrates his third birthday this month,” she says. “What a blessing to wake up every day to feel the sun shine on your face and feel the warmth of love all around you.”
Falleti hopes that the knowledge gained from her participation in a clinical trial will benefit other women with ovarian cancer. “Hopefully we’ll find a cure for this dreadful disease.
“As for other cancer patients, I would say, ‘Be strong and stay optimistic. A cure may be just around the corner, and you may be the first one to experience it,’” she says.
And she recommends Roswell Park to all cancer patients.
“If you ever are diagnosed with any type of cancer, immediately contact Roswell Park. As they say, ‘Spend just one day with us‘ — you will be glad you did.”
Editor’s Note: Cancer patient outcomes and experiences may vary, even for those with the same type of cancer. An individual patient’s story should not be used as a prediction of how another patient will respond to treatment. Roswell Park is transparent about the survival rates of our patients as compared to national standards, and provides this information, when available, within the cancer type sections of this website.