“Every member of the staff remembers you, the doctors, the nurses, the accounting department. Even the cleaning lady said hi.”
In 2017, I was having one of the best years of my life. I was about to turn 60, I’d lost weight, and I was feeling good and having a great time. Then, insurance stopped covering the medication I took for acid reflux and my stomach started hurting. I visited my family doctor to ask for something to control the reflux. I also asked for an ultrasound of my stomach and gallbladder, because two other members of my family had had emergency gallbladder surgery, so it was on my mind.
By some miracle, my doctor wrote down “ultrasound of the abdomen,” which was a broader area than I’d asked for. It turned out to be a good thing, because when the imaging came back, it showed abnormalities in my left kidney. My doctor then ordered a CT scan of my abdomen and pelvis. On December 17, 2017, he called me, and I could hear that he was very upset. He told me: “You have bladder cancer.”
A Life-Changing Decision
I didn’t tell my family about my diagnosis until after the new year because I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s holidays. In the meantime, I took the report from my doctor and started looking up some of the terms on the internet. Fox Chase Cancer Center came up at the top of the search results, so I decided to give them a call. That decision changed my life.
I spoke to a woman named Annie who talked to me like I was a family member. She told me that her sister was treated for bladder cancer by Dr. Alexander Kutikov, the chair of the Department of Urology at Fox Chase. She said he was the best, and she made me an appointment.
I met Dr. Kutikov the very next week. He’s an amazing doctor—so personable, and he looks you straight in the eye when he speaks. He thoroughly explained what he and his team planned to do and why, and he answered every question I had. With this information in hand, I felt prepared to share the news with my family of what was to come.
My first procedure took place at the end of January 2018; Dr. Kutikov actually made room in his schedule to do it. He surgically removed tumors from my bladder and placed a stent so that urine could move freely from the kidney to the bladder.
In March 2018, I had a procedure called transurethral resection of bladder tumor, also known as TURBT, with blue light cystoscopy. The doctors injected a solution that, under a blue light, caused the cancer cells to turn neon pink. Then the surgeon—in my case, Dr. Kutikov—went in and cut away the visible tumors.
In consultation with Dr. Elizabeth Plimack, a medical oncologist and Deputy Director at Fox Chase, Dr. Kutikov planned to follow up with immunotherapy, which works with the body’s immune system, in the hopes that I could keep my bladder. However, by May the cancer was back, and we discovered it was muscle invasive. This meant I would need to have my bladder removed.
To get rid of as much of the cancer as possible before surgery, I was prescribed a round of chemotherapy. It’s going to sound crazy, but I probably had the most fun a chemotherapy patient could have. Fox Chase gives you white glove service. Anything I could want, they provided, from blankets to chaplain service. The therapy dogs were the best. I was anxious the first day I got in the chemo chair, but then a golden retriever came over and licked me on the chin. It immediately made me forget my fear and my pain.
The nurses were incredible, too. There was this big syringe that they had to gradually push into my arm, and the whole time we would talk and make jokes. Here I was, sick to my stomach with a headache and the runs, I’m getting chemo, and I’m laughing my face off! I cannot imagine it being like this anywhere else. Every member of the staff remembers you, the doctors, the nurses, the accounting department. Even the cleaning lady said hi.
Finally, in October, it was time to have my bladder removed. When I met with Dr. Kutikov, he asked whether I would be willing to donate the tissue they removed for research. At this point, I felt so comfortable with him, I said, “Dude, I’m not taking it home in a jar. You can have it.” I feel good knowing that my tissue could help others down the line.
The surgery went smoothly, and Dr. Kutikov visited my room every day afterward to check on me. One day, I developed a fever and started to panic, so the staff called my husband to come to the hospital and calm me down. Unbeknownst to me, Dr. Kutikov also personally called my husband to tell him not to worry and to share that this sometimes happens to patients recovering from surgery. He’s an amazing man, and I refer people to him to this day.
Life After Surgery
I’m not going to lie—the first three months after I got home were tough. Shock set in that my bladder was gone and that I would have a urostomy bag forever. Fortunately, Dr. Emmie Chen, a psychiatrist at Fox Chase, helped me deal with my thoughts and feelings as I got readjusted to regular life. Ultimately, it was all worth it, because on January 19, 2019, Dr. Kutikov called to tell me I was cancer free.
I’m now four years clean and am back to my active life with no limitations. I travel, I go swimming, I do stomp rockets at my grandsons’ birthday parties, and I volunteer for the Fox Chase Patient-to-Patient Network. My goal is to live until I’m 90 and dance at my grandsons’ weddings. I’m going to do it!
I had the absolute best experience at Fox Chase. Everything now compares to what I went through there. I don’t think anywhere else is ever going to clear that bar.
Learn more about treatment for bladder cancer at Fox Chase Cancer Center.