When Helen Craig was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer—retroperitoneal liposarcoma—the 50-year old cardiac unit charge nurse turned to Stanford Health Care to save her life. The two large tumors deep within her abdominal cavity had infiltrated her organs and important blood vessels, and were deemed inoperable by the surgical team at another hospital. That’s when Craig and her husband Steven sought a second opinion. They came to Stanford Health Care, which had developed a comprehensive sarcoma program, combining expertise in surgical oncology and vascular surgery to tackle these difficult cases.
“Tumors in the retroperitoneal section are notoriously difficult to treat,” said George Poultsides, M.D., a surgical oncologist at Stanford Health Care. “They lie deep within the abdominal cavity, and often involve additional organs and major blood vessels. Through close collaboration between surgical oncology and vascular surgery, we have shown that we can resect tumors that involve major blood vessels.”
Because surgery to remove these tumors often requires the removal of nearby organs and reconstruction of blood vessels, the Stanford team first tried chemotherapy for two months. When chemotherapy was found to have no effect, Craig underwent a 12-hour surgery, in which Poultsides removed the two large sarcoma tumors in her abdomen, as well as her left kidney, spleen, duodenum, aorta, and part of the vena cava. Vascular Surgeon Matthew Mell, M.D., reconstructed her aorta with an aorta graft and performed an additional procedure to restore blood flow to her colon.
“Without a vascular surgeon, you could not have resected this tumor,” said Poultsides, who described the procedure as two surgeries in one—the first to remove the tumor and the second to reconstruct blood vessels severed in the resection.
That first surgery in 2014 was not the end of Craig’s battle with liposarcoma. This type of cancer has a propensity to reoccur. In 2016, a second surgery was needed to remove a new tumor that had emerged at a nearby location. During that surgery, Poultsides removed the tumor, Craig’s stomach, part of her pancreas, the left adrenal gland, and the left hemi diaphragm. Radiation oncologist Daniel Chang, M.D., then delivered intraoperative radiation therapy directly to the site of her tumor to minimize the chance of recurrence.
“For sarcomas, surgery is often the best option, and sometimes the only option,” said Poultsides. “We hope to give patients several years between surgeries. But this has not been the case for Helen. This is a very aggressive cancer.” In November of this year, Craig underwent a third surgery to remove a new tumor and part of her descending colon. “She is cancer free once again, but it is tough to know what will happen next,” said Poultsides.
“I hold the highest regard and respect for Dr. Poultsides, his colleagues, and Stanford Health Care,” said Craig, who retired from nursing this past year. “They have saved my life three times.”
“Although her life has changed drastically over the past three-and-a-half years, my mom continues to show inspiring positivity and fortitude,” said Craig’s 22-year old daughter Rebecka. “She does everything she can to be well. She still walks our dogs daily, eats healthy, and travels”
During most of her mom’s illness, Rebecka had been away at college at UC Berkeley. A cognitive science student, she turned to painting and drawing to manage her stress. She painted a portrait of her mom, inspired by a photo she took of her lighting a candle in Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. “The painting was not only a gift for her, but also an outlet for me to express what I was feeling away at school while she was fighting cancer,” said Rebecka. “I painted ‘Light’ for my mother as a depiction of hope and faith. She is a mother to five daughters, a loving wife and friend, and a cardiac nurse. She is my inspiration, my light.”
Today, Rebecka’s painting can be viewed online as part of the Rare Artist contest sponsored by the Every Life Foundation for Rare Diseases.
“I entered the Rare Artist contest to raise awareness about sarcomas,” she said. Online voting to select the winning painting continues through December 21. If selected, Craig will have her art showcased on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. “Although I feel powerless over the progression of my mom’s disease,” said Rebecka, “I hope that campaigning for the rare condition through art can help in some way.”