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Beating the odds is old hat to Barbara Cremean. In 1998, after dropping her daughters off at school, she was hit head on by a drunk driver. "I was on my way to the most important meeting of my career—and my life changed in an instant," recalled Barbara. She underwent spinal fusion surgery and started the long road to recovery. Little did she know, her serious health problems had just begun - and she was only 37 years old.
In 1999, when her daughters were just 9 and 13, Barbara noticed her leg was swelling up and she suspected she had a blood clot. "My family doctor had just passed away, so I didn't have anyone to ask," admitted Barbara, who went to her local emergency room for testing. A general surgeon sent her to a gynecologist for further testing. It was decided that she might have fibroids. This surgeon could not stop thinking about Barbara's case and consulted with his college roommate, Dr. Michael Torosian, who was a surgeon at Fox Chase at the time. Just before Barbara was about to undergo a hysterectomy, Dr. Torosian called her personally and asked to see her for an evaluation.
"Dr. Torosian reviewed my tests and decided that I didn't need a hysterectomy at all," shared Barbara. "Instead, I had 3 tumors in a vein in my pelvis, which were diagnosed as leiomyosarcoma." If Barbara had undergone the hysterectomy, the cancer would have remained. She was extremely grateful to the doctors at Fox Chase for diagnosing her rare type of cancer and treating her so well.
"I had the best team of doctors at Fox Chase."
Barbara's team of doctors included medical oncologist, Margaret von Mehren, MD and radiation oncologist, Penny Anderson, MD. "I had the best team of doctors at Fox Chase. They were so supportive," Barbara remembered.
Following her treatment, Barbara was unable to return to work due to the pain she continued to endure. She was referred to the pain management team at Fox Chase, including Bonnie Carolan-McNulty, RN, MSA and Michael Levy, MD.
Barbara and her husband make friends with an alligator in Marco Island.
"Once I saw the pain management team, my world totally turned around."
"Before I saw them, I had a poor quality of life and had trouble functioning," shared Barbara. "Once I saw the pain management team, my world totally turned around. I went back to school and started working and traveling again."
In January 2009, Barbara, now 48, and her husband, Michael, took a cruise with their daughter and some friends. While many people overindulge on a cruise and gain weight, Barbara had no appetite. "Everyone was asking me why I wasn't eating," shared Barbara, who lost 8 pounds that week. "When I got home, Dr. Levy suggested I get an endoscopy at Fox Chase to find out what was wrong." She made an appointment with Jeffrey Tokar, MD, a gastroenterologist at Fox Chase, who performed the endoscopy.
A few days later, Barbara woke up to learn that her husband, Mike, lost his job as a union electrician. "We were so upset about his job," recalled Barbara. "But later that day, when I got the call Dr. Tokar had discovered cancer in my stomach, I was so thankful that Mike was able to be with me - and remained with me every step of the way. I guess that's what they call blessing in disguise."
Dr. Jonathan Cheng, a medical oncologist at Fox Chase, started her on a course of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, to shrink the tumor before surgery.
John Hoffman, MD, a surgical oncologist at Fox Chase who specializes in complex gastrointestinal cancers, scheduled Barbara's surgery on June 22, 2009. During preadmission testing, Dr. Hoffman learned that the cancer involved the distal esophagus (near the gastroesophageal junction), making surgery even more challenging.
"I had a scary diagnosis and not very good odds. That made me fight even harder."
Barbara says she liked the fact that her doctors did not sugarcoat anything. An upfront person herself, she wanted to know exactly what to expect. That gave her more confidence in the care she was receiving.
On July 6, Dr. Hoffman performed surgery to remove Barbara's tumor, and in doing so, removed her stomach and esophagus. Then he reconstructed her stomach, which now has a circumference of 1 inch and sits in her chest. The procedure was similar to gastric bypass, but left no room for Barbara's new stomach to stretch again. It resulted in a major life style change for Barbara, but it saved her life. Barbara is doing much better today, although she has many restrictions on what she can eat - and how much she can consume.
The thoracic walker made recovery faster.
While she stayed in the hospital after surgery, Barbara used a thoracic walker to help expedite her recovery. She was determined to get better, so she walked once the first day, twice the second day, three times the third day, and so on.
Barbara's daughters are now in their twenties. Her youngest daughter Samantha, is attending college and studying to be a radiologist. "After watching all that I've been through, Samantha decided to study radiology. She was only 10 when I was first treated for cancer. She really wants to help people," shared Barbara. Her older daughter, Melanie, a hair dresser, was a huge help when Barbara lost her hair to chemotherapy. "She took such good care of my scalp and my hair when it grew back. She really helped me along the way."
"The social work department is phenomenal!"
If there was a silver lining through everything Barbara endured, it was her social worker at Fox Chase, Luanne Chynoweth. "When I first began treatment, I was resistant and didn't think I needed a social worker," admitted Barbara. "Boy was I wrong!" Luanne helped Barbara get through this traumatic experience. During Barbara's long relationship with Fox Chase, Luanne was promoted to director of the department. Although she assumed many new responsibilities, Luanne remained very involved in providing support for Barbara in order to retain continuity of care.
In late 2009, when Luanne had the opportunity to nominate a patient for Crossing the Finish Line (CFL)'s Sailor Program, she chose Barbara. Once her feeding tube was removed, the Cremeans were given an all-expense paid trip to Marco Island through CFL. "Mike and I have taken many trips, but this was the most wonderful of all," Barbara remembered. "We didn't know how much we needed the vacation. It was an escape from reality - and the cancer. We appreciated it so, so much."
"I am so grateful to everyone at Fox Chase. They saved my life twice!"
"Overall, I am so grateful to everyone at Fox Chase. They saved my life twice! I would highly recommend anyone with cancer go to Fox Chase."