Courage Across Generations: Navigating Bladder Cancer
Stories of resilience from women in their 20s, 40s, and 60s.
Lauren Dekok, a 26-year-old professional dancer, sat in a Coral Gables, Fla., medical facility in 2020 as a nurse looked over an ultrasound image of her abdomen.
Dekok had been feeling out of sorts – constant aching, blood in her urine, a strange pain shooting down her legs. As the nurse scanned the ultrasound, she spotted something, and her eyes grew wide.
“I thought I was pregnant,” Dekok says.
The nurse immediately made a call; Dekok could not understand the woman’s Spanish but could hear the urgency in her voice. Then they delivered the news: Dekok wasn’t pregnant; she had bladder cancer.
“You’re 26, and you’re this strong athlete. I wasn’t scared of anything,” she says. “I’ve never broken a bone; I know how to take care of my body, and all of a sudden, my organs are not OK, and I have this weird thing growing inside of me?”
The news came as a shock to Dekok and the medical team treating her because men are four times more likely to develop bladder cancer than women, and the median age at diagnosis is 73, according to data from the National Cancer Institute.
Bladder cancer can affect anyone at any age and treatments used at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of UHealth – the University of Miami Health System, can help patients of all ages and genders return to their regular lives.
What is a Neobladder?
Chad Ritch, M.D., M.B.A., F.A.C.S., a surgeon at Sylvester, has treated many women with bladder cancer. On top of the usual concerns whenever someone gets a cancer diagnosis, Dr. Ritch, who is also an associate professor of urologic oncology at the Miller School of Medicine’s Desai Sethi Urology Institute, says women also worry about their ability to have children and the terrifying image of spending the rest of their lives carrying a bag to hold their urine.
“I’ve had patients who have flat-out told me they’d rather die than have to wear a urine bag,” he says.
But Dr. Ritch has made life easier for many of those patients with a robotic surgery procedure that removes the cancerous bladder and replaces it with a new one built from their intestine, creating what is known as a “neobladder.” The entire procedure is performed using the robot from start to finish, allowing patients to recover quickly and return to their daily lives while leaving them with minimal scarring and a bladder that works effectively without needing any external bags.
“Not Your Natural Bladder” – But One That Works Well
“Once you start explaining to the patients, ‘It’s not as good as what God made; it’s not your natural bladder, but it is something that will work well for many, many years,’ then they wrap their heads around that,” Dr. Ritch says.
He had that conversation with Veronessa Torrico, a mother of three who owns a food distribution company and was diagnosed with bladder cancer when she was 45. Her first symptom was a urinary tract infection (UTI), which she initially dismissed. But as the UTIs became more frequent, she sought out medical help, and her cancer was discovered.
Torrico says that drove her onto the whole rollercoaster of emotions, asking if she would survive to see her son graduate from the Marines Corps and what kind of life she could expect for herself. But she also worried about losing her hair, femininity and boyfriend.
“As a woman, you have to see yourself as beautiful,” she says. “I would like my partner to feel like they’re with someone young, someone sexy.”
She responded by showing up to her first chemotherapy session wearing red high heels and bright red lipstick.
“I wanted to show them that I was still going to shine,” she says.
When the chemotherapy didn’t eliminate all the cancer, she was referred to Dr. Ritch, who suggested a neobladder. She was initially skeptical, but now, after her 10-hour surgery and recovery, Torrico is back to work, back in high heels, and still with her boyfriend.
Growing a Network of Support
Tequesta Alston was older when she was diagnosed with bladder cancer. The community educator was 63 when blood in her urine led her to the doctor and her cancer diagnosis. She works for a company developing therapies for Alzheimer’s patients, so she was able to consult with doctors in her office and do her research. That made the decision to receive a neobladder from Dr. Ritch easier.
But even Alston was nervous about the practical effects on her life. She wondered how she would continue her job, which involves public speaking, and whether she could remain a regular at the gym. “I felt, ‘Oh my God, this is going to change my entire life. How am I going to live like this?’” she says.
Once she went through chemotherapy, received her neobladder, and went through the recovery process, however, she returned to work and the gym, and says her life was getting back to normal.
“I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to have a young surgeon who was up on the latest and greatest,” she says.
Dr. Ritch says each of his patients has gone through their own physical and emotional journey, and he has realized that sometimes patients are the ones who can best answer questions for other patients. Since bladder cancer is so rare among women, there is only one national support network, the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network, and no local groups. Dr. Ritch has started connecting his patients so they have someone to speak with.
“Getting that mental support and toughness when you’re young is important,” said Dr. Ritch.
Dekok agrees. She helped talk Torrico through her journey. And since her surgery, Dekok has become a real estate agent. She started doing Pilates again, has gone SCUBA diving and is even contemplating a return to her first love of dancing.
“Not professionally. I will never get to the level that I was at,” she says. “But if there was an adult ballet studio I felt comfortable with, yeah.”