Helen: Right Time, Right Place

spirit Helen Szablya.JPG

Helen S. doesn’t really believe in luck or superstition. Karma, maybe. Serendipity, for sure.

Mainly, after a long and ultimately successful fight against an aggressive and rare form of cancer, what Helen says she truly believes in is miracles.

That, and the right doctors at the right hospital, at the right time.

Someone Watching Over You

In September 2009, Helen experienced one of those exceptional moments when you have to believe something or someone is watching over you. The independent Public Relations professional from Baltimore had just returned from a trip to Paris where she had celebrated her 15th wedding anniversary with her husband Chuck. During the trip she’d noticed some post-menopausal spotting. As soon as she returned home she went to see her gynecologist, Dr. Taro Adachi, at Mercy Medical Center.

Little did she know at that moment she was at the beginning of what would be a challenging, but ultimately fulfilling journey that would forever change her. Looking back now, she can see how the path she took seemed predestined, and it would lead her back to where she’d begun. Healthy. Happy. Alive.   

“It was like one little miracle after another,” she said. “If I had gone anywhere else or seen another doctor, things may not have worked out the way they did. It was serendipitous.”

Going For It

Right from the very start Helen was blessed. Dr. Adachi ordered a sonogram. In time, this seemingly routine decision would turn out to be the key that triggered Helen’s treatment and recovery. “I swear, most GYNs would have seen me and said, ‘let’s wait a couple of weeks and see how things progress,’” she noted. “But what I didn’t know at the time was that I didn’t have that long.”

Fortunately, things moved quickly. During the sonogram, the technician could not find Helen’s ovaries. Neither could the radiologist. They sent her back with film in hand to see Dr. Adachi, who then ordered an MRI, which was scheduled quickly. The radiologist who read the MRI called Dr. Adachi, who immediately scheduled an appointment for her early the next day. 

Based on the radiologist’s report, Dr. Adachi explained what was happening: Helen had cancer. It was not a tumor, he said, but rather made up of mucus. He referred her to a specialist, Dr. Armando Sardi, Director of Mercy’s Institute for Cancer Care and the head of the hospital’s Division of Surgical Oncology.

While Helen may have strong feelings about the possibility of higher powers in her life, she’s not the passive type. She and her husband spent the next night painstakingly researching this mucus-type of cancer, but found little information. “We ended up talking about what we were facing and what odds we were willing to take,” she said. “We decided that if there was treatment available and the odds of survival were above 50 percent, we’d go for it.”

She went for it.

A Chance at Recovery

The following day Dr. Sardi met with Helen and Chuck. His initial diagnosis was cancer of the appendix. Later, after pathology analysis on tissue removed during surgery, her disease would be pinpointed: Stage IV Primary Peritoneal Cancer. The treatment recommendation was cytoreductive surgery with heated intraperitoneal chemotherapy (CRS with HIPEC).

Dr. Sardi gave her an 80 percent chance of recovery.

“We felt like we’d won the lottery,” she said. “We had gone into the meeting expecting a death pronouncement only to be given hope. I thought then that something or someone was looking out for me.”

The surgery was scheduled three weeks later at Mercy. It lasted 10 hours, during which Helen’s spleen, gall bladder, ovaries, uterus, appendix, fallopian tubes and part of her liver were removed. Just as the surgery began, a tumor on Helen’s fallopian tube ruptured. “If I’d been anywhere else at that moment, I probably would have bled out,” she said. “The timing of everything was remarkable.”

Despite the severity of her surgery, Helen was out of bed and walked a few steps just 24 hours later. But her recovery was not easy and progress was slow. But there was support.  Her son Alex created a blog site called “Helen’s Update” to keep friends and family abreast of her progress. Friends took four hour shifts round-the-clock in her recovery room. Her daughter Anna came in from Los Angeles to take care of her mom once she was home from the hospital. Friends rallied around her.

And then there was the staff at Mercy.

“During my 10-day stay the staff at Mercy was excellent and so caring,” she said. “And the Mercy medical team was just wonderful,” she said. “They were always available when we had questions, and they were constantly reassuring me.”

Always Hope

By mid-December of 2009 Helen had another CT scan, which showed she was cancer free. But the fight wasn’t over. She’d lost 30 pounds.  She slept more hours than she was awake. And she had still had to endure chemotherapy. She began the treatments in late January 2010 with Dr. Peter Ledakis of Mercy’s Medical Oncology and Hematology group in the hospital’s Institute for Cancer Care Center. Initially she was prescribed six treatments delivered every three weeks. It was eventually extended to even more. There were side effects and she used different methods to fight them and to keep up her strength. Anti-nausea drugs, acupuncture, miracles.  Whatever it took.

Through it all, Helen says, what she discovered was that a positive attitude was crucial to her recovery. “It was difficult, but most of the time I was optimistic, as were those around me,” she said. “The doctors at Mercy were so pleased with my progress and very reassuring when I was in doubt.”

Helen is now three-years cancer-free. Whatever the reasons, she has seen that no matter how dark the diagnosis, there is always hope. If you have the right attitude, the right doctors, the right family, and the occasional miraculous timing.

“The support of my family, friends and the medical caregivers at Mercy made all the difference in the world to me along my cancer journey,” she said. “Dr. Sardi and his care team and Mercy Medical Center were the keys that guided me through this disease and treatment.  They were gifts. They were my miracles.’

The Institute for Cancer Care at Mercy offers treatment for a wide range of cancers, relying on advanced technologies, compassionate care, leading edge research, clinical trials, and demonstrated medical expertise to provide some of the best treatment options available to fight cancer and restore hope and vitality.