After being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2006, Joan Hess of Tamaqua had a total hysterectomy (removal of her uterus, ovaries and cervix) and thought she was in the clear.
But in 2015, Hess noticed spotting. As a cancer survivor and retired nurse, she knew not to ignore it. “I called my gynecologist right away,” she says. “And then the saga continued.”
Despite a course of radiation and chemotherapy, cancer infiltrated nearly all organs in her pelvis. In early 2018, when she saw gynecologic oncologist Martin Martino, MD, with LVPG Gynecologic Oncology, she was in excruciating pain and relied on opioid medications to get through each day.
“Joan’s best option was pelvic exenteration, which removes all organs from the pelvis, including the bladder, vagina and rectum,” Martino says. “After conferring with my colleague, M. Bijoy Thomas, MD, also a gynecologic oncologist, we were confident in our ability to not only perform the procedure, but do it in a minimally invasive fashion using the da Vinci® surgical robot. That would limit pain, scarring and promote a faster recovery.”
Hess didn’t hesitate, even when she realized how extensive the surgery would be. She trusted both doctors and was desperate for relief from her pain.
Martino and Thomas assembled a multidisciplinary team, including urologic and plastic surgeons from Lehigh Valley Institute for Surgical Excellence and specialists from Lehigh Valley Topper Cancer Institute, and planned for the first robot-assisted pelvic exenteration procedure in the region.
Back to her life
Hess’ March 2018 surgery “went as well as we could have hoped,” Martino says. “It was a true testament to the teamwork and collaborative care we provide at Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN).”
During a month-long inpatient recovery, Hess found that she required less and less pain medication. She returned home in early April, where she slowly reclaimed her life. She continues treatment with immunotherapy to target any remaining cancer cells, but today the 69-year-old is finally able to enjoy simple pleasures again.
“I’m back to gardening, going to church, visiting my grandchildren and going to their football games,” she says. “People call me a miracle. I’m grateful for and awed by the care I received at LVHN.”
– Yasmine Iqbal