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Kathleen Marchek - Patient Story

"The communication between the doctors was amazing - they were all on the same page about taking care of me."

— Kathleen Marchek, Breast and Anal Patient

One cancer diagnosis is bad enough. Two in the same month is really over the top. But that’s exactly what I faced in August 2009 at the age of 54. I was a teacher at the time and was very involved in an afterschool program called Read to Succeed. Our daughter had just graduated from Penn State in May of 2009 and was planning to move home until she found employment.

I was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer the same week I had a colonoscopy, which led to my diagnosis of stage 3 rectal cancer. It was around the same time that Farrah Fawcett had died from anal cancer. I was just beside myself. The doctor said I had to take care of it immediately.

Fox Chase Cancer Center was already on my radar. I was originally diagnosed at a local community hospital where my mother had treatment for her breast cancer. She had wonderful care, but her cancer had metastasized to other sites in her body including her lungs, liver, and brain. I wanted to make sure I was treated at a cancer hospital, and I liked the team approach that was used for my situation at Fox Chase.

I had contacted Richard J. Bleicher, MD, FACS, a surgical oncologist specializing in breast cancer, about my initial diagnosis. Because breast cancer runs in my family, I decided to have the BRCA test to see if I was a carrier. Thankfully, the test was negative. I called and said I was now also dealing with rectal cancer. My appointments turned into team appointments, with meetings scheduled right away.

With my husband and my rock, Lawrence, by my side, I met with a team of doctors including a radiation oncologist, a medical oncologist, and two surgical oncologists. The communication between the doctors was amazing—they were all on the same page about taking care of me.  

In light of the new diagnosis, Dr. Bleicher scheduled surgery for the end of August that involved a lumpectomy along with removal of some of my lymph nodes. Fortunately, the breast cancer hadn’t spread to the lymph nodes and so I went home that same day. But I needed chemotherapy and radiation therapy at Fox Chase for six weeks for the rectal cancer and then more surgery.

After six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation, Jeffrey Farma, MD, FACS, my surgical oncologist, told me that the tumor had shrunk and it was time for surgery. He didn’t know how extensive the surgery was going to be and said it was possible I would need a temporary ileostomy or a colostomy. To treat my cancer, Dr. Farma removed 12 centimeters of my colon and rectum. When I was coming out of anesthesia, I asked if I had an ostomy bag and the nurse said yes, but it was temporary. I thought, “OK, I’m alive and I will live through this.”

When I think back on the whole situation, it comes down to doing what you need to do to get through it. Because I live about an hour and a half from Fox Chase and needed to travel five days a week for six weeks, I took four months off from teaching, using my many sick days, and then returned after surgery. I lived with the ostomy from December 2009 through August 2010 when the ostomy was reversed, while continuing to have chemotherapy and work full-time as a teacher. Through it all, I kept a positive attitude. All the doctors, nurses, and staff I worked with at Fox Chase were so wonderful. Everything healed and now I feel 100 percent fine. It’s a new normal for sure, but I wanted to survive to live another day, to see my grandchildren, and to travel. I’ve always been a glass-is-half-full kind of person. This experience really put that attitude to the test.

I’ve now been cancer-free for almost eight years, and life is great. I retired from teaching and am now a proud grandmother, so I travel to Philadelphia to babysit our grandchildren once or twice a week. My husband and I deliver Meals on Wheels on Mondays to seniors in our area. Our daughter just got married in September and lives in New York City, where I love to visit. Additionally, I love to read and I’m in a Book Club with all my former teacher friends. I also help my father, who is 92 years old, with his shopping, meals, and doctor appointments. My husband and I visit Florida every winter and just got back from a trip to the Amalfi Coast.

I continue to keep busy and live each day to the fullest. Having cancer makes you think twice about sweating the small stuff and more about enjoying the life you were given.

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