A Second Life After Endometrial Cancer

Heidi Hlawaty

Five years ago, college professor Heide Hlawaty, EdD, experienced strange symptoms and confronted a startling reality — endometrial cancer.

“I hadn’t seen a gynecologist in 14 years,” said Dr. Hlawaty, 51. “Early in 2011, I started getting fevers and feeling intense abdominal pain for no apparent reason. The cancer did not happen overnight, and I ignored a lot of symptoms.” 

After meeting with a local gynecologist and undergoing a recommended sonogram and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, Dr. Hlawaty learned she had Stage 1 or possibly Stage 2 endometrial cancer. Since she would need surgery to have the cancer removed and know its progression, she was referred to Jill Whyte, MD, gynecologic oncologist with the Northwell Health Cancer Institute

Dr. Hlawaty remembers that her community gynecologist recommended the Cancer Institute as the best place to find specialists in robotic hysterectomy. Doctors perform the minimally invasive procedure at Long Island Jewish (LIJ) Medical Center, which the American Institute of Minimally Invasive Surgery has named as an Academic Center of Excellence for minimally invasive surgery in gynecologic oncology and gynecology.

“Dr. Hlawaty needed an abdominal hysterectomy and we needed to determine the extent of the endometrial cancer,” Dr. Whyte said. “While this is a routine surgery, Dr. Hlawaty was obese at the time of diagnosis, with a body mass index of 51. She also had large uterine fibroids, which made her surgery more complicated.”

“We talked a lot about her weight as it related to her cancer diagnosis,” Dr. Whyte said. “Obese women with endometrial cancer have a high risk of developing other obesity-related medical problems, such as diabetes and heart disease. In one study, women with early stage endometrial cancer were reported to be twice as likely to die of cardiovascular disease than from their endometrial cancer. An important part of survivorship care is helping patients adapt to a healthier lifestyle, including weight control. Our entire team is focused not only on getting patients through their cancer treatment, but helping them live long and healthy lives thereafter.”

Dr. Hlawaty recalls a very direct, tough-love conversation with her physician. “Dr. Whyte told me, ‘You have to do something,’” she said. “I began walking once a day at her urging, and that’s how my transformation began.” 

Female-Focused Cancer Treatment

The gynecologic oncologists at the Cancer Institute are distinctive in their approach to treating cancers and precancers of the female reproductive system. 

“Women have better outcomes when a gynecologic oncologist is involved in the care of their reproductive malignancies,” said Andrew Menzin, MD, associate chief of gynecologic oncology for Northwell's central region. “One unique aspect of gynecologic oncology is that we are ob/gyns. We approach our specialty with awareness of women’s care as a whole. When we consider treatments, we consider their effects on fertility and sexual function and the onset or effects of menopause.” 

During the past year, most gynecologic oncology services that were based at North Shore University Hospital have shifted to the LIJ Medical Center campus in New Hyde Park. This assembles a broad spectrum of services under one roof to enhance collaboration and streamline patient care. In addition to private rooms post-surgery, LIJ offers patients, like Dr. Hlawaty, broad expertise in robotic and minimally invasive surgical techniques. 

“Women need the right procedure for the right condition at the right time,” said Richard Schwarz, MD, medical director at LIJ. “We have surgeons highly skilled in minimally invasive robotic procedures, and we collaborate with community gynecologists, medical and radiation oncologists, and other professionals to help ensure our patients see their kids and grandkids grow up.”

A New Beginning

Dr. Hlawaty gradually moved from daily walks to running, eventually training for a 5k race and then a 10k. She also trained with kettlebells and incorporated yoga into her fitness routine — all with Dr. Whyte’s advice and encouragement. During the past five years, Dr. Hlawaty lost more than 100 pounds. Recently released from Dr. Whyte’s care after five years cancer-free, she notes she’s in better health than before her diagnosis.

“This is my second life,” Dr. Hlawaty said. “I’m more fit in my 50s than any other decade of my life. Dr. Whyte was with me throughout the weight-loss process and saw me become more active. She never once asked me how could I have gotten to this point or made me feel embarrassed or ashamed. During my five years of treatment, she was there whenever I had any questions. It was kismet from the beginning — I wish I didn’t have cancer, but the experience with Dr. Whyte changed my life.” 

Find out more about the Gynecologic Oncology Center and its services.

Find more news about health, wellness, medical discoveries and community programs from LIJ Medical Center and North Shore University Hospital in Look North.


Focus onHealth TV

Watch Focus onHealth, Northwell Health's TV show. It's the healthy way to stay informed!