Carmel Valley ovarian cancer survivor lives life to the fullest

Doing the splits is no problem for Naomi Whitacre, a Carmel Valley ovarian cancer survivor-turned advocate.
Doing the splits is no problem for Naomi Whitacre, a Carmel Valley ovarian cancer survivor-turned advocate.

By Kathy Day

Some people facing a cancer diagnosis go into a deep funk. Others, like Carmel Valley resident Naomi Whitacre, tackle it head on – and then some.

Today, 10 years after finding out that she had ovarian cancer and nearly three years after learning she carried the BRCA1 gene, which has been tied to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, she said she does three things: She’s a human resources consultant, a volunteer for ovarian cancer and she lives “life joyously with friends.”

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Clockwise from left, survivor Cindy Breed, Councilwoman Barbara Denny, Naomi Whitacre, and survivors Kathryn van der Broek and Kathleen Murray

A self-described flower child who went to Woodstock and put herself through college as a go-go girl, today she does yoga, spins, hikes, takes classes at the Bar Method in Solana Beach and loves to entertain at her “Round Table” dinners where friends “talk about anything and everything in life.”

She uses her own experience — and boundless energy — to inform others about ovarian cancer. And she’s not just focused on assisting other survivors, but helps medical students, nurses and nurse practitioners understand what patients need. She also advocates for genetic testing and individualized treatments through the Clearity Foundation.

Oh, and in her “spare” time, she recently went on a three-week mission to assist AIDS-related orphans in Kenya.

Listen to the story about her cancer diagnosis and you’ll identify with her special appreciation for life.

“Fortunately, the cancer was accidentally discovered,” she said on a recent afternoon sitting in her sun-bathed Carmel Valley home.

She had been working out on the beach, but when she got home, she walked in the door with a 103-degree fever. Immediately she called her doctor, Lawrence Schlitt of Scripps Health. “I think he saved my life,” she said.

And her own decision eight years later to have genetic screening done to see if she had the BRCA1 gene likely saved her sisters’ lives, she added.

When she learned she had the gene, Whitacre immediately had a double mastectomy. After sharing the news with her sisters, her middle sister had her ovaries removed; when her baby sister went in to have her ovaries removed, they found high-grade fallopian cancer.

Soon, all three sisters are heading for Paris to celebrate Whitacre’s 65th birthday and their own lives.

Needless to say, she’s become an advocate for genetic testing.

Early testing, knowing your body and demanding answers from doctors have become her watchwords.

“Put yourself first instead of taking care of everyone else,” she said.

When she fell ill after that workout on the beach that day 10 years ago, her doctor said he suspected appendicitis and told her to get to the hospital immediately, but she replied that she was too busy. Set to leave for Europe and teaching classes in human resources at UCSD, she just couldn’t be bothered, she said.

“He said no, go now,” she said. “I was reluctant and annoyed” but headed for Scripps anyway.

An MRI of her abdomen to check for appendicitis revealed a cantaloupe-sized tumor that had formed around a fibrotic ovarian cyst. Three days later Dr. Conlay Lacy and Dr. Bridgette Duggan removed the growth, which turned out to be stage 2C ovarian cancer.

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