Barbara Cremean: Beating the Odds of Cancer

"I had the best team of doctors at Fox Chase."

— Barbara Cremean

I am quite familiar with beating the odds. In 1998, after dropping my daughters off at school, I 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. I underwent spinal fusion surgery and started the long road to recovery. Little did I know, my serious health problems had just begun – and I was only 37 years old.

A Rare Cancer

In 1999, when my daughters were just 9 and 13, I noticed my leg was swelling up and I suspected I had a blood clot. My family doctor had just passed away, so I didn't have anyone to ask. So I went to my local emergency room for testing. A general surgeon sent me to a gynecologist due to a possibility of fibroids. The surgeon could not get my case off his mind and consulted with his college roommate, who was a surgeon at Fox Chase at the time. Just before I was about to undergo a hysterectomy, the surgeon called me personally and asked to see me for an evaluation. 

After a thorough review of my tests, it was determined that I didn't need a hysterectomy at all. Instead, I had 3 tumors in a vein in my pelvis and I was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma. If I had undergone the hysterectomy, the cancer would have remained. I was extremely grateful to the doctors at Fox Chase for accurately diagnosing my rare type of cancer and treating me so well.

Best Team of Doctors

My team of doctors included Dr. Margaret von Mehren, chief of the Division of Sarcoma Medical Oncology at Fox Chase, along with the chief of the Division of Breast and Gynecologic Radiation Oncology, Dr. Penny Anderson. I had the best team of doctors at Fox Chase. They were so supportive.

Following my treatment, I was unable to return to work due to the pain I continued to endure. I was referred to the pain management team at Fox Chase, including Dr. Michael Levy, who has since retired, and nurse navigator Bonnie Carolan-McNulty, RN, MSN.

Before I saw Bonnie, I had a poor quality of life and had trouble functioning. Once I saw the pain management team, my world totally turned around. I went back to school and started working and traveling again.

Another Cancer Diagnosis

In January 2009, then 48, my husband Michael and I took a cruise with our daughter and some friends. While many people overindulge on a cruise and gain weight, I had no appetite. Everyone was asking me why I wasn't eating. I lost 8 pounds that week. When I got home, my doctor suggested I get an endoscopy at Fox Chase to find out what was wrong. I made an appointment with a gastroenterologist at Fox Chase, who performed the endoscopy.

A few days later, I woke up to learn that my husband, Mike, was laid off from his job as a union electrician. We were so upset about that his job ended because we didn’t know how long it would be until another job came up. But later that day, my gastroenterologist explained that I had esophagastric cancer. 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.

A Challenging Surgery

I was referred to Dr. Jonathan D. Cheng, a medical oncologist at Fox Chase. Together with Dr. Anderson, they recommended a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, to shrink the tumor before surgery. The treatment was successful and I was a candidate for surgery.

My surgeon, Dr. John Hoffman, chief of Pancreaticobiliary Service, specializes in complex gastrointestinal cancers. He scheduled my surgery for June 2009. During preadmission testing, Dr. Hoffman learned that the cancer involved the distal esophagus (near the gastroesophageal junction), making surgery even more challenging.

I liked the fact that my doctors did not sugarcoat anything. I am an upfront person myself, I wanted to know exactly what to expect. That gave me more confidence in the care I was receiving.

On July 6, Dr. Hoffman performed surgery to remove my tumor, and in doing so, removed my stomach and esophagus. Then he reconstructed my stomach, which now has a circumference of one inch and sits in my chest. It resulted in a major life style change for me, but it saved my life. I am doing much better today, although I have many restrictions on what I can eat – and how much I can consume.

Silver Lining

After graduating from college and joining the workforce, my daughter Samantha is considering returning to school to study radiology. She was only 10 when I was first treated for cancer. She really wants to help people. My older daughter, Melanie, a hair dresser, was a huge help when I lost my hair to chemotherapy. She took such good care of my scalp and my hair when it grew back. She sang to me when I was recovering which really helped me along the way.

If there was a silver lining through everything I endured, it was the social work department at Fox Chase. When I first began treatment, I was resistant and didn't think I needed a social worker. Boy was I wrong!

In late 2009, the team nominated me for the “For Pete’s Sake” (formerly Crossing the Finish Line) Sailor Program. Once my feeding tube was removed, my family and I were given an all-expense paid trip to Marco Island. Mike and I have taken many trips, but this was the most wonderful of all. 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.

Overall, I am so grateful to everyone at Fox Chase. They saved my life, twice! I often meet people facing cancer, and am constantly encouraging them to go to Fox Chase. Until my husband pointed it out, I never realized what an advocate I’ve become!

Learn more about stomach (gastric) cancer treatment at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

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