2nd of a two part series on cancer care in the upstate
CANCER – the word puts a pit in your stomach and sometimes a hole in your heart. Most of us look at such a diagnosis as the beginning of the end, a death sentence. But, then there are those of us who refuse to give in to this or any catastrophic illness and determine to fight, and even more so, to win. This article is written to provide hope to any and all facing such a diagnosis. It follows the article on Dr. Steven Trocha, surgical oncologist with the University Medical Group of Greenville, and outlines this patient’s journey through cancer with this amazing surgeon.
My journey is a long one, spanning six years from August, 2008 through August, 2014. It began with simple pain in the back around the kidney. For three years I saw one doctor after another including general practitioners, orthopedic doctors, pain management doctors, and rheumatology doctors. I also went to a variety of chiropractors, massage therapists, acupuncture specialists, and physical therapists. Many tests were run on me, just not the right ones. In April of 2011 I was diagnosed at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center with an extremely rare form of cancer called leiomyosarcoma. It had grown off my left kidney and had attached to several other organs. I also had spots on my lungs. Soft tissue sarcoma is extremely rare and there are some 75 sub-types of sarcoma. All sarcomas are somewhat resistant to chemotherapy. The diagnosis was devastating to my husband and myself. We had not been retired long and had many plans for our future. Plus, I was a breast cancer survivor from 2002, a microscopic malignancy, but there none the less. How could this have happened? I immediately knew that the road would be long and hard, but I could not give up.
I went to another major medical facility in the state and they didn’t give me much hope. I transferred to one of the top ten cancer centers in the US, out of state, in June, 2011. The names of both of these I am withholding for privacy reasons. The point is, as you will read, bigger is not always better. I became a patient at this out-of-state cancer facility and research institute in June, 2011. For five months I underwent chemotherapy, once a week, off 2 weeks, and it basically lasted through October, 2011. In November of 2011, I was put on a new drug, recognized by the FDA, but not yet by insurance. It took five weeks to get it. I started it the day after Christmas of 2011 and was put on a different one in January, 2012. In February scans showed that the tumor was larger than ever. Everything I had gone through and accomplished since June had been wiped out. I knew that surgery was the only real cure for sarcoma. I determined to look for another doctor. The bigger cancer facility had let me down.
I cannot proceed with this story without sharing my faith. As a Christian I knew then and know now that God has a plan for our lives. Some of us will live to be old, others will not. But, because of my strong faith, my close communication with God, and the hundreds or thousands of people praying for me, I knew that I was to fight on. The name of Dr. Steven Trocha had been given to me by a neighbor in the fall of 2011. Dr. Trocha had removed a sarcoma from his shoulder successfully. But, at that time, I thought, “Why should I go to Greenville, when I am at one of the top 10 centers in the country?” The name of Dr. Trocha was given to me 2 more times before I realized that it could be divine intervention. An appointment was made and my journey with this gifted doctor began in March of 2012. He was to be used by God to save my life.
Some tests were run and it was found that I did not have cancer in the lungs. Hot spots can be other things and such was my case. On April 19, 2012, Dr. Trocha performed a radical and aggressive surgery on me to remove the cancerous tumor, now over 25 cm, along with my left kidney, adrenalin gland, spleen, 2/3 of my pancreas, and 6 inches of my colon. Not only did I live, but in 12 days, I went home. Five weeks later I began five weeks of radiation therapy on the left side of the body in case any cells were left behind.
Since that time in April of 2012, I have commented that “Dr. Trocha’s hands are God’s hands” in surgery. That is not to put him on a pedestal, but it is to say that God has gifted this surgeon in many ways so that he is in the business of saving lives. I often tell him how God sent me to him and in his humbleness he says that I did all the work. But it was he that God used to save my life. He gets the credit, but God gets all the glory.
In November of 2012 my husband and I were disappointed to find that I had one spot on the liver. Dr. Trocha was willing to remove it in what I will call a much more minor surgery compared to the other one. I remained cancer free the rest of 2012 and all of 2013. We were elated. God had answered so many prayers and I was willing to share my story with others not only in church but also in any situation I found myself in.
In November of 2012, Dr. Trocha called me to say he was writing an article using the acronym CANCER, with each letter standing for something. He shared with me that he had come up with C – consciousness, A – attitude, N – nurturing, C-compassion, E – empathy, and R – revelation. He asked if I would give a few comments on each and I offer them now to the reader.
C – consciousness: the slap in the face that you have the disease; no running; no denial;
A – attitude: stand and fight or give in and die;
N – nurturing: appreciating each day of life, nurturing relationships with others, particularly my devoted husband, nurturing a doctor/patient relationship with my surgeon;
C – compassion: forgiveness of life’s trials and other’s trespasses, heartfelt feelings for those in similar situations, an increase in prayer life, particularly for the sick;
E – empathy: sharing my story of faith and fight with all those I come in contact with;
R – revelation: the road map to healing which is prayer, faith, hope, belief, and fight.
In January of this year, 2014, my regular check-up CT scan showed I had four spots on the liver, not close enough together for a simple surgery. Dr. Trocha said his plan was for chemotherapy to stop the spread and then we would discuss surgery. Enter Dr. Mark O’Rouke, medical oncologist with the Multi-Disciplinary Clinic. I found him to be another caring, kind, compassionate physician who worked diligently to ensure that I had the correct type of chemotherapy for sarcoma. He commented to me that he would be pleased if there were no spread of the cancer and “very pleased” if anything at all showed shrinkage. Four treatments later, Dr. O’Rouke was “very pleased” when the CT scan showed that the cancer had not spread, one spot had disappeared, and two had shrunk. Working with Dr. Devane, intervention radiologist with the MDC, Dr. Trocha and Dr. Devane decided to have me undergo a right portal vein embolization of the liver. In this procedure, the patient is under general anesthesia while the right portal vein is blocked off. This causes all nutrients to go to the left side of the liver and causes it to begin to grow BEFORE surgery takes place. An amazing procedure! And God created our bodies with the liver as the only organ that will regenerate. This procedure took place on June 3 of 2014 and except for a little soreness, I never knew it happened. A follow-up CT in several weeks revealed that the small left side of the liver had grown enough to sustain me and surgery was again scheduled for July 9, 2014. Before going in for the surgery, I prayed with Dr. Trocha that his hands would once again be God’s hands. And they were. The surgery was successful as 70% of my liver was removed along with the gall bladder. And I am doing so well at this writing, that the next CT is not scheduled till November. We are hopeful and believing that it will be a clear CT.
I must mention that in March of 2014 a gift of $1 million was given to Greenville Hospital System to launch a Rare Tumor Center to diagnose, research, and treat patients such as myself. This center is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation and is in alliance with Foundation Medicine, leaders in molecular medical research. Since all the procedures and surgeries performed on me have been successful, I have not had to become a patient of the center, although Dr. O’Rouke was ready to begin the process if necessary. But it is wonderful for me and others with rare cancers to know that GHS has such a center available.
For three out of four years I have fought this cancer. Yet, I did not roll up in a ball and die. There were certainly days I felt like it. But each day I would and still do open the door, look at the morning sky and say “This is the day the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it.”
There is hope. But hope only comes with faith. My words to anyone fighting such a life altering disease are “never give up.” You, and only you, will know when your name is being called into eternity. And only God can decide when that is. He does, however, use the wonder of modern medicine and gifted doctors and surgeons to fulfill his plan for our lives.
Thank you, God, for using Dr. Steven Trocha, the UMG, and the MDC to give me back my life, not once, but several times. The walk was through the fire, but it was worth it.