George Sobeck and his wife Geri
George Sobeck’s advice to friends or family facing a cancer diagnosis is to “hang in there and do whatever it takes to stay alive.” He speaks from experience. He benefited from an innovative treatment for his metastatic colon cancer that wasn’t available just a few years ago.
Physicians at the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center (UMGCC) are seeing impressive results in treating patients with cancers of the abdominal cavity with a procedure called Hyperthermic Interperitoneal Chemotherapy (HIPEC). The treatment involves surgically removing as much of the cancer as possible from the abdominal cavity – an operation known as “cytoreductive surgery” – then, while the patient is still on the operating table, introducing a highly concentrated solution of chemotherapy drugs to bathe the entire abdominal cavity with the cancer-fighting liquid for up to three hours. The entire operation typically takes from 14 to 16 hours.
The goal is to eradicate any minute cancer cells that have spread to the inner lining of the abdomen. Such cancers are often unresponsive to conventional treatment.
When Sobeck's colon cancer recurred in 2005, his oncologist referred him to Nader Hanna, M.D., professor of surgery at UMGCC and an expert in using heated chemotherapy to treat patients with colorectal cancers that have spread to other organs and the abdominal wall.
The decision of whether to have such an aggressive, complicated surgical procedure was a difficult one for him. “When Dr. Hanna first told me about the surgery and laid out all the possible complications, I thought, ‘I don’t want that. Suppose it only gives me a few months. Then why go through all that?’ I was really upset. It took me a few days to think it over. I talked to my doctor and my friends. I asked what they would do if they were me. Everyone said I should go ahead with it,” he recalls.
“Gastric cancer patients have a very high risk of peritoneal metastases – tiny tumors that develop throughout the abdominal cavity. Standard treatment is surgery followed by conventional chemotherapy administered through the veins,” says Dr. Hanna. “But the response rates are inconsistent. Sometimes you get a dramatic response. Most of the time you do not,” he adds. “Until fairly recently, we didn’t have an effective way of treating peritoneal tumors.”
By treating them with heated chemotherapy during surgery, doctors at UMGCC hope to prevent the cancer from recurring. Clinical studies have shown that cytoreductive surgery with HIPEC treatment has improved survival and quality of life for patients who otherwise have few treatment options.
“The heat itself helps to kill cancer cells and also enhances the effect of the chemotherapy drugs,” Dr. Hanna says. “Not only does the chemotherapy come into direct contact with the tumors, but some of it is absorbed into the bloodstream and may have a systemic effect.” It also allows doctors to use higher concentrations of anti-cancer drugs than in conventional chemotherapy.
So, on May 12, 2005 -- his 60th birthday -- Sobeck had the HIPEC procedure, during which Dr. Hanna removed his spleen, appendix, gallbladder, as well as part of his liver, diaphragm and small intestine -- “basically everything I didn’t absolutely need to survive,” he notes.
He now believes that the treatment saved his life, and has kept him cancer-free for the past three years. His wife, Geri, agrees: “God was watching over us when they sent us to Dr. Nader Hanna and his team of dedicated physicians, nurses and clinicians who worked around the clock to treat George and deliver such exceptional care. There is no greater sight than to see that big smile on Dr. Hanna's face when he comes to find you in the Healing Garden surgery waiting area.”
She was able to stay close during the time her husband was hospitalized, living at the nearby Hope Lodge, located just two blocks from the medical center. She credits the supportive, home-like atmosphere there with helping her deal with the difficult situation: “We live in a rural area of Pennsylvania and leaving home and family to go to a city like Baltimore with George so sick and facing a surgery so serious was most frightening. The Lodge gave me a place to call home during the most difficult period of my life. The staff was wonderful, and the others living there were so understanding. We knew what each other was going through and we helped each other through the highs and lows. I walked to the hospital each morning and they allowed me to stay in intensive care all day long and at night a shuttle took me back to the Lodge, where you always found comfort and pleasant surroundings.”
Sobeck’s results from the treatment have been excellent. He maintains a schedule of check-ups at the cancer center every three months, and is closely followed by his oncologist back home in Pennsylvania.
Now looking forward to his 63rd birthday in May, he is busy these days with his five grandchildren and lending a hand in his son-in-law’s plumbing and heating business “as a hobby.”
His wife sums up their feelings about his experience: “God has truly blessed us and has answered so many prayers that have been said for George and our family over these past years, from our family and friends both known and unknown who continue to pray for us daily. It was a blessing being sent to UMGCC, a hospital we had never heard of before, where miracles do actually happen.”
For more information on HIPEC or other treatment options for gastrointestinal cancer, please visit our GI Oncology Program or call 1-800-888-8823.