Living with Mesothelioma: A New Normal

In December of 2007, Timonium resident Jen Blair was pregnant with her second son, Kevin. It was a “very painful pregnancy.” She went to a few doctors, who told her the pain was normal. The pain returned, “worse than ever,” six weeks after giving birth to Kevin.  More doctors. More tests. She was first told she needed laparoscopic surgery, then that she had stage 4 cancer in her abdomen. She was told to get her affairs in order.

It turns out Jen had peritoneal (in the abdomen) mesothelioma, in which cancer cells are found in the membranes around organs in the abdomen. This is very rare — only about 350-500 cases are diagnosed annually in the US – and the five-year survival rate is just 16 percent.

“It was overwhelming,” Blair said.

Now that she knew what she was up against, it was time to find a doctor.
Her brother did an Internet search of the best Mesothelioma doctors, and up popped H. Richard Alexander, MD, an internationally recognized surgical oncologist and clinical researcher at the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center (UMGCCC). UMGCCC is only a half hour from her house, but Blair said her choice had much more to do than travel time from home.

“Dr. Alexander’s team was incredibly supportive,” Blair said. “When I called with literally dozens of questions, some of which, thinking back now, were ridiculous, they always took time to give me an answer. That really impressed me.”
Just a week after calling UMGCCC about her condition, Blair met with Dr. Alexander.  After an examination, Dr. Alexander told Blair that she was a candidate for surgery. For surgery to be an option in  treating mesothelioma, it has to be considered a safe operation, and the disease has to be confined to one area. Blair decided to have surgery.

“That one decision changes everything for a patient,” Blair said.  “Not all doctors specializing in mesothelioma have the patient’s best interest at heart.”

Many doctors, Blair said, are motivated by money.  She said she’s heard horror stories from other mesothelioma patients, where doctors demanded an upfront sum of money—sometimes adding up to hundreds of thousands of dollars—before operating.  But not at UMGCCC.

In March 2008, Dr. Alexander performed surgery with HIPEC (hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy), which uses heated chemotherapy in combination with surgery to treat cancers that have spread to the abdomen lining.  While surgery to treat mesothelioma isn’t a cure, Jen’s quality and quantity of life have been greatly improved.

Blair was virtually pain free for more than seven years after the surgery, and was able to spend time with her family, and watch her two sons, Kevin and Nick, as they grew up. She had a second surgery with HIPEC in March 2015, and more than a year later, suffers very few episodes of pain.

While the days are still hard and life won’t ever be normal, Jen says it’s a huge relief having Dr. Alexander and his team in her corner.

“Dr. Alexander is hopeful, but realistic,” Blair said. “That’s important.”

Jen now works as a volunteer at UMGCCC, comforting and supporting other patients going through the same things as her.  She also works closely with the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, which is a non-profit “dedicated to ending mesothelioma and the suffering caused by it, by funding research, providing education and support for patients and their families, and by advocating for federal funding of mesothelioma research.”

Learn more about the Mesothelioma and Thoracic Oncology Treatment Center at the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Comprehensive Center by clicking here.

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