In May of 2019, Judy Armstrong texted a picture of herself to her daughter, Dr. Deborah (Deb) Armstrong (Col ’88), and sister. In the photo, Judy is enjoying a party hosted by the Club at Ironwood in Staunton, Virginia. “She looked good,” said Deb “but something told me something was not right.” Deb’s aunt worried that her sister looked thinner than usual.
“Dr. Landen wants to find a good screening. Early ovarian cancer may not cause any symptoms, and when symptoms do occur, the cancer is often very advanced. We don’t have an effective screen for ovarian cancer like the Pap smear for cervical cancer or the colonoscopy for colon cancer. The other arm of his research involves effective chemo. There are apparently these cells that are resistant—kind of like bacteria, they get smart. So if you do have ovarian cancer, there will be a really effective armamentarium against it that will give you quality of life, and not just leave you laid out.”
A few weeks passed and Judy’s appetite diminished. She would meet friends for dinner yet feel unable to eat. “That's not my mom,” said Deb. Despite her decreased appetite, Judy was complaining that her stomach felt big. When Deb returned from a trip abroad two weeks later, she saw her mom and knew immediately that she wasn't well. After a CT scan in the emergency room and further testing, her mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Judy has a full life. She retired from a 36-year career as a real estate broker in Staunton. “She was kind of a legend,” said Deb. “She loves playing golf, she likes to laugh. And after her diagnosis, she was like ‘I am not ready to go.’”
Judy is receiving treatment at the Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center, and Deb accompanies her mom to her appointments. “They are really caring,” she said. “The nurses are phenomenal—we love Jana [Jana Briedis-Ruiz, RN].” Over the course of her mom's treatment, Deb had conversations with her doctor, gynecologic oncologist Dr. Charles Landen, about his research. “Dr. Landen wants to find a good screening. Early ovarian cancer can be asymptomatic, and when symptoms do occur, the cancer is often very advanced. We don’t have an effective screen for ovarian cancer like the Pap smear for cervical cancer or the colonoscopy for colon cancer,” said Deb. “The other arm of his research involves effective chemo. There are apparently these cells that are resistant—kind of like bacteria, they get smart. So if you do have ovarian cancer, there will be a really effective armamentarium against it that will give you quality of life, and not just leave you laid out.”
When Deb enrolled at UVA, she intended to complete the course requirements for medical school. But her high school didn’t offer a rigorous science and math program, and she was unprepared for those courses. When she graduated from the University in 1988, it was with a degree in rhetoric and communications.
Deb Armstrong’s support of Dr. Charles Landon’s research was inspired by the care her mom is receiving at the Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center. In 2021, the University of Virginia Cancer Center was named a Comprehensive Cancer Center, an elite designation held by only 52 cancer programs in the nation.
Deb went on to earn a law degree from Washington and Lee University in 1992 and worked as a trust officer for a bank but hadn't let go of her dream of practicing medicine. “Going to law school and passing the bar gave me confidence,” she said. “I thought, ‘I can probably handle med school.’ But it was a long road.” Deb attended the Medical College of Virginia and graduated in 2002. She had an aptitude for pathology and started a pathology residency but missed directly caring for patients. She found her place in family medicine and wound care. As she balances her work with caring for her mom, she has taken on medical consulting for attorneys, reviewing potential cases for viability and serving as an expert in trials.
Deb also has a full life. She and her spouse Jen Breitbarth share five dogs, mostly rescues. She rides motorcycles and has many times conquered The Dragon, an 11-mile stretch of road in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee known for its 318 curves and beautiful scenery. She owns a 2006 Honda VTX 1300R, a 2018 BMW K 1600B, and a 2019 BMW GS 750. “Riding is an excellent stress reliever,” she notes.
Deb sees great promise in Landen's research—the promise that women in the future won't find their lives interrupted by a late-stage ovarian cancer diagnosis, and the promise that those who are diagnosed will receive the most effective treatment—and has made plans to support his work through her estate. Her bequest will create the Judy Gallup Armstrong Ovarian Cancer Research Fund.
While her treatments have required Judy to slow down some, her diagnosis has also inspired mother and daughter to double down on living large. In 2021, they traveled together to Chicago and Florida to visit friends and family, and they took a trip to both coasts of Florida in May of 2022. “A terminal diagnosis makes you grab life by the horns before it’s too late,” said Deb.