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Robert Crossfield: Putting Out The Cancer Fire

"When I met with Dr. von Mehren, I was impressed by her confidence."

— Robert Crossfield, Kidney and Colon Patient

In the summer of 2007, I was digging a trench for a new drain line outside of my home. When I finished, my wife, Joan, noticed a lump on the right side of my chest through my tank top. As a father of five boys, including triplets, and a 30-year Philadelphia fireman, I was concerned about the lump and made an appointment with my primary doctor.

First Surgery

My doctor didn't like the look of the lump and suggested I go see a general surgeon at a community hospital to get a biopsy, which I did. Shortly after, I learned that I had a rare cancer called leiomyosarcoma in my chest wall. I underwent surgery at the same hospital.

Even after the surgery, my wife kept worrying about my health – and wanted me to go see a cancer specialist. Joan's sister is a wound care nurse at Fox Chase Cancer Center. She urged me to make an appointment with Dr. Margaret von Mehren, a medical oncologist who specializes in treating patients with sarcoma. I did my own online research and agreed. I went to see Dr. von Mehren within a few days.

Fox Chase

When I met with Dr. von Mehren, I was impressed by her confidence and had an immediate trust in her recommendations for my treatment. Dr. von Mehren referred me to Dr. Penny Anderson, a radiation oncologist at Fox Chase.

Dr. Anderson started me on a six-week course of radiation. Because leiomyosarcoma is an aggressive cancer, further testing was recommended, including a CT scan, lab work, and a consultation every three months with my team at Fox Chase.

Second Surgery

I thought my cancer was under control and continued with my normal activities, including a routine colonoscopy. During the test, my doctor discovered pre-cancerous cells, and in January 2008, I underwent surgery at my community hospital to remove a large portion of my colon.

Doctors at Fox Chase continued to monitor my health. In November 2008, testing revealed a mass on my lung. The Chief of Thoracic Surgery at Fox Chase performed minimally invasive video-assisted thoracic surgery, called VATS, to remove the mass from my lung while preserving as much lung tissue as possible. Following surgery, I underwent another aggressive course of chemotherapy under Dr. von Mehren’s care to ensure the cancer would not recur.

Monitoring Health

During my chemotherapy, my lungs filled with fluid, which can be a side effect of treatment. A pulmonary specialist at Fox Chase evaluated and admitted me to the hospital at the Center. The pulmonary department at Fox Chase is remarkable.

Within a few months, I was back at Fox Chase – this time for renal cancer. Dr. Rosalia Viterbo, a urologic surgeon who specializes in kidney surgery, performed the delicate procedure robotically. Dr. Viterbo is such a genuine person; I look forward to our yearly visits now. She's had two children in the last couple years. She is such a great listener and easy to talk to, I just know she's a great mom.

My experience with cancer didn’t end there. In March 2010, I experienced pain in a muscle near my right side. The sarcoma had recurred. Dr. Jeffrey M. Farma, a surgical oncologist at Fox Chase, performed two surgeries to remove the tumors. Again, I underwent six weeks of intense radiation therapy. That’s when I realized how aggressive sarcoma can be.

More Surgeries

With renal, colon, and metastatic sarcoma in my right chest cavity, it was a struggle to keep in good spirits. My wife and kids are what kept me going during these difficult times. The guys from the fire department were there for everything. We laughed, we cried, we talked. I am really blessed to have such a strong bond with such special people. With everything I was facing, I believed I had so much to be thankful for.

With the objective of keeping the cancer under control, I began a six-week course of inpatient chemotherapy prior to surgery to decrease the size of the mass. Subsequently, Dr. Farma performed two surgeries on my lower back and a radical surgery on my right chest wall.

Dr. Sameer Patel, reconstructive surgeon at Fox Chase, performed several procedures on my chest wall. During one, Dr. Patel placed a wound vac into my torso using the same procedure used on veterans for injuries sustained from explosive devices. The results were remarkable enough for doctors from all over the country to view my results.

Clear Scans

During my many procedures at Fox Chase, Dr. Farma, and Dr. Patel treated me with respect and compassion. What they were able to accomplish was incredible. I underwent additional surgeries in the summer of 2013 and 2014. Since my last surgery in July of 2014, the scans have been clear.

As a result of so many surgeries, I experienced nerve pain in my chest. Physical therapy was recommended at Fox Chase to improve my range of motion. The rehabilitation was so helpful. To have a top-notch rehab facility under the same roof was very convenient. The therapists are really caring and great at what they do.

Community Commitment 

I am committed to serving the community. In addition to my 30 years of service as a Philadelphia firefighter, I have been with FEMA since 1994, and was among the team of first responders to the 9/11 disaster where I assisted at Ground Zero the first nine days.

With one son in college, one son in high school, and my triplet sons in middle school, I am back to work and glad to be back with the guys at the firehouse again. I see Dr. Farma and Dr. von Mehren every three months for scans and am forever grateful to the entire team at Fox Chase for saving my life.

Dr. Farma is a local guy. We get our hair cut at the same barber. He's a family man, a real genuine person, and a terrific doctor. When I go to see him with my wife after the testing, he's always calm and straightforward with us. A handshake, a hug – he really connects with you. You can see it in his eyes, he really cares.

When I reflect on the bleak prognosis I was given several years ago, I attribute my success to my love of God, family and friends, my fellow firefighters, and the doctors and nurses at Fox Chase.

I've had aggressive cancers, and multiple cancers, but today I feel healthy again. This is a battle I'll never give up because I have way too much yet to see and to live for. When I see a worry in my sons’ eyes, I always tell my boys we must keep pushing forward and always go straight ahead. I feel very grateful that we chose Fox Chase to guide us and be with us all the way through this trying time for our family.

Learn more about colorectal cancer treatment and kidney cancer treatment at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

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