Teal for Life
A Bethesda woman handles a terrifying ordeal-five cancer diagnoses in six years-with courage...and polish
It started with a twinge—not painful exactly, but suspicious—in her abdomen.
At 37, Carey Fitzmaurice had been trying for months to conceive a third child, so she was paying particularly close attention to her body’s signals that Saturday night in February 2006.
Suspecting a bladder infection, she called her doctor right away for an appointment. That Monday, a urinanalysis ruled out the infection. “But something just didn’t feel right,” she says.
While awaiting more test results, Fitzmaurice did what any well-educated, research-obsessed, Bethesda-area professional would do: She Googled her symptoms. When she learned that ovarian cancer was a possibility, she panicked, even as her husband, Andrew Schulman, assured her that the disease was unlikely.
A month later, Fitzmaurice went for an MRI. She was feeling bloated, and it was getting worse by the hour. “By the time I walked out of the radiology place, I looked like I was four to five months pregnant,” she says. Fluid was building up in her abdominal cavity, and “I had read [on the Internet] that when you get the bloating, the chances of it being anything other than cancer are very slim.”
Soon after, Fitzmaurice learned that she had Stage III ovarian cancer, meaning the disease had gone beyond tumors on her ovaries and had spread to the abdominal lining. It was shocking news, given the mildness of her initial symptom.
Her panic quickly shifted to pragmatism. “I started writing things down my kids would need to know someday,” Fitzmaurice says. And “I took out the jewelry that my grandparents had given me and wrote out who gave what to me and why.”
Dealing with a life-threatening disease certainly wasn’t what Fitzmaurice and Schulman imagined when they were married in 1997 and moved to a leafy suburban neighborhood abutting the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. With a master’s degree in public administration and a law degree, Fitzmaurice had set her sights on climbing the ranks at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where she now works as a senior policy analyst. Schulman is a mathematical statistician at the agency.
In 2000, they had their first son, Elijah. Sam was born in 2003. By 2006, they were ready for another child. Instead, Fitzmaurice found herself fighting for her life.
At 5 feet 7 inches tall, with brown eyes and salt-and-pepper hair, Fitzmaurice is the kind of woman who prefers Birkenstocks to pumps, and rarely wears makeup. She comes across as both smart and no-nonsense, the sort of person who makes things happen. After the initial panic about her diagnosis, Fitzmaurice put those skills to work finding the best care she could.
On March 31, 2006, the day before Sam turned 3, Fitzmaurice endured seven and a half hours of surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, including a hysterectomy, appendectomy, splenectomy and bowel resection, as well as having her ovaries removed, diaphragm scraped and her omentum—the fold of membrane that connects and supports abdominal structures—removed.
She needed eight rounds of chemotherapy, which started during surgery and continued every three weeks for six months. The side effects were grueling. In addition to experiencing nausea, “I lost every bit of my hair,” Fitzmaurice says. “Eyebrows and eyelashes were the worst. [And] everything tasted like metal.”
But the surgery and chemo appeared successful. Fitzmaurice was cancer-free for the next year.