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In the spring of 2011, Michelle Santangelo noticed a hard bump on her hip so she had her doctor check it out. The doctor ordered an X-ray which showed “fatty tissue in normal limits.” She followed her doctor’s recommendation, and didn't worry about it, especially because she was so healthy and active. Then in July, after a moderate mountain hike, she developed excruciating pain in her lower leg. She went to a general surgeon to have the growth removed the following month. Tests revealed she had malignant stage three liposarcoma, a type of tumor that grows within the fat cells in deep soft tissue.
"I was in complete shock," said Michelle, who was only 27 at the time. Her surgeon sent Michelle to see an oncologist at a large teaching hospital. “I just didn’t feel that I was getting clear answers to my questions, including what were the pros and cons to having chemotherapy?” Still, she met with the facility's surgical oncologist, who wanted to cut vertically and around Michelle’s horizontal scar on both sides in a diamond shape, which would mean she would need skin grafts.
“I didn’t understand why they had to take so much tissue," admitted Michelle, who wanted a second opinion. "I’m sure all of the doctors I met were very qualified, but their bedside manner was not the best. I felt like a number. If was going to lose my hair and go through nine months of treatment, I needed a team with a more compassionate approach.”
With the support of her parents, Michelle did some Internet research and asked the advice of her uncle, a microbiologist who contacted a colleague of his who was an oncologist. They were referred to Margaret von Mehren, MD, director of the Fox Chase Cancer Center’s sarcoma program.
“From the start, Dr. von Mehren was just phenomenal.”
“From the start, Dr. von Mehren was just phenomenal,” recalled Michelle. “She reviewed and explained all of my treatment options and suggested that I meet with Dr. Jeffrey Farma, a surgical oncologist at Fox Chase." Dr. von Mehren entered Michelle's medical information into a database, including the tumor’s location, size, and other criteria, to show Michelle that if she opted for chemotherapy, her chances of recurrence would decrease from 25 percent to 12 percent. "I really needed to hear those statistics in order to make the best decision for me.”
Dr. Farma performed the delicate procedure in late October. During surgery, he uncovered several cancerous areas, so Michelle felt confident in her decision to proceed with surgery. Because of her age and knowing she might want to start a family in the future, Michelle wanted to harvest and freeze her eggs before she started chemotherapy and radiation. “The first doctor I’d met with at the other facility did not feel this step was necessary," shared Michelle. "But it was important to me, and it came up right away in the conversation with Dr. von Mehren, who sensed my desire to have children one day.”
Dr. von Mehren designed an inpatient chemotherapy regimen for Michelle, with each round requiring an 80-hour hospital stay followed by a three-week break. After the first round of treatment, Michelle developed an infection that resulted in a mycloplasma pneumonia over Christmas. Earl King, MD, a pulmonary specialist at Fox Chase was brought in to Michelle's case to help manage the pain. "Dr. King was extremely compassionate. I felt completely confident that he would get me on the road to recovery."
“At Fox Chase, every single person I met and every single nurse who took care of me was exceptional.”
“Even though it was tough for me to spend the holidays in the hospital, the Fox Chase staff did a wonderful job of making my stay as pleasant as possible.” After her third round of chemotherapy, Michelle developed a blood infection that colonized at her port, requiring its removal. “Through all of these challenges, I stayed focused on keeping a positive attitude,” she recalled. In all, Michelle spent 40 days as an inpatient at Fox Chase over the course of three months. “At Fox Chase, every single person I met and every single nurse who took care of me was exceptional.”
Once Michelle recovered from surgery and chemotherapy, her next step was radiation therapy. She met with Penny Anderson, MD, a radiation oncologist at Fox Chase. "Dr. Anderson was so kind and explained what I would experience under her care," shared Michelle, who started a course of radiation in the sping 2012. Michelle was one of the many patients who experienced symptoms of radiation therapy, including skin irritation. She remained positive and her belief in her doctors and course of treatment did not waiver.
“I never lost faith in my treatment team," said Michelle, who knew she was in the best possible place and getting the best care. “Of course there were times when I’d look at myself in the mirror and have no idea who was looking back at me. I’m used to being a confident person, and I just looked very sick, no matter how much I’d try to take care of myself." Today, Michelle is still managing residual pain in her leg, she has learned to manage the discomfort by practicing yoga and stretching on a daily basis to increase her flexibility.
With the loving support of her family, boyfriend and friends, Michelle made it through her treatment successfully, with no sign of cancer present in her body. Her cancer diagnosis has inspired her to go back to school to become a holistic nutritional health coach.
Based on her personal experience, Michelle has decided to help other cancer patients.
“I think my health consciousness helped me fight this disease,” she said. “I’ve met many other busy people who have a hard time fitting in exercise and are often eating on the go. I’d like to support cancer survivors with their recovery from treatment and help them transition into a healthier lifestyle so they can prevent a recurrence. To me, cancer treatment and support goes beyond chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Fox Chase also provided me with the emotional support and external resources I needed. I’d like to use my personal experience and expertise to help other patients who are confronting cancer."