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Barbara Cremean - Patient Story

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

— Barbara Cremean

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," recalls 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," explains Barbara, who went to her local emergency room for testing. A general surgeon sent her to a gynecologist due to a possibility of fibroids. The surgeon could not get Barbara's case off his mind and consulted with his college roommate, who was a surgeon at Fox Chase at the time. Just before Barbara was about to undergo a hysterectomy, the surgeon called her personally and asked to see her for an evaluation. 

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

Barbara's team of doctors included Margaret von Mehren, MD, director of the Sarcoma Program at Fox Chase, along with radiation oncologist, Penny Anderson, MD. "I had the best team of doctors at Fox Chase. They were so supportive," Barbara remembers.

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 Michael Levy, MD, PhD, 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," shares 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, then 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," notes Barbara, who 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." 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, 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," recalls Barbara. "But later that day, Dr. Tokar 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."

Barbara was referred to Jonathan D. Cheng, MD, 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 Barbara was a candidate for surgery.

Her surgeon, John Hoffman, MD, FACS, Chief, Pancreaticobiliary Service, specializes in complex gastrointestinal cancers. He scheduled Barbara's 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.

Barbara 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 one inch and sits in her chest. 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.

"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," shares the proud mom. 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 sang to me when I was recovering which really helped me along the way."

If there was a silver lining through everything Barbara 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," she admits. "Boy was I wrong!"

In late 2009, the team nominated Barbara for the For Pete’s Sake (formerly Crossing the Finish Line) Sailor Program. Once her feeding tube was removed, the Cremeans 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," Barbara recalls. "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,” adds Barbara, who has referred many patients for visits. “Until my husband pointed it out, I never realized what an advocate I’ve become!”