Thursday, May 31, 2012
Tina Gump says her motivation for making a financial contribution to the University of Maryland School of Medicine is simple: “I owe my life to Dr. Alexander.” But the story of how she found Richard Alexander, MD, and why she decided to support The Mesothelioma Treatment and Research Center where he is associate chairman for clinical research, is less straightforward.
Didn’t Feel Right
In the fall of 2009, Gump began to notice something strange happening to her. A relatively young woman -- “I was 43 at the time” -- and in good health, Gump says she just didn’t feel right. She lacked energy, grew increasingly tired, and couldn’t catch her breath. She had asthma but didn’t think that was the cause.
So Gump, who lives in Fort Ashby, West Virginia, a small town about 12 miles south of Cumberland, Maryland, met with her primary-care provider to find out what was going on. After a series of inconclusive tests, including an X-ray, the doctor ordered a CT scan, which revealed the source: a large tumor in Gump’s omentum was pushing against her diaphragm, causing the breathing and other problems.
A gynecologic oncologist in Morgantown, West Virginia, diagnosed Gump with ovarian cancer, removed the tumor, and, because there was a chance she still had tumors in her abdomen, inserted a port and ordered intravenous chemotherapy to start immediately.
“He said it didn't look good and that I didn't have much of a chance,” says Gump. “He gave me 6 months to a year to live. It was such a blow to us. My son had just graduated high school and was starting college.”
‘Couldn’t Be Ovarian Cancer’
But Gump refused chemotherapy, despite pleading from her family and doctor to reconsider. She just didn’t believe the diagnosis was correct. She had had a full hysterectomy more than 10 years before and thought, “how can it be ovarian cancer?” More important, the tumor pathology hadn’t come back yet.
“My family was so mad at me, but I knew [the doctor] was wrong,” she says. “It was too soon to decide that his diagnosis was conclusive. It couldn’t be ovarian cancer. I just felt it.”
So she sought additional opinions, from other physicians nearby, and the answers all came back the same: wait for the pathology. And when the results finally arrived in January 2010, with a conclusive diagnosis of mesothelioma of the peritoneum, not ovarian cancer, one doctor summed up Gump’s worst fears.
“He said, ‘Had you gone ahead with that chemotherapy, it would’ve killed you,’” Gump says.
However, no one in the greater Morgantown medical community knew what to do with her new diagnosis. Most could treat mesothelioma in the lungs but not in the abdomen. Eventually, after some Internet searching and a referral from a doctor in Cumberland, the Gumps found their way to The Mesothelioma Treatment and Research Center at the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center and H. Richard Alexander, MD. Learn more about mesothelioma research at the University of Maryland.
A Different Experience
Gump says that, from the beginning, she and her family knew that their experience with Dr. Alexander and the University of Maryland would be different from the others.
“When I met him for the first time he was so compassionate,” she says. “He explained my cancer and my options. He explained the surgery that they would perform and the success rate.”
Following a consultation with Gump, Dr. Alexander, a professor of surgery and a leading expert in the treatment of peritoneal mesothelioma, a rare but incurable cancer arising from the membranes of the abdominal cavity, knew exactly what to do. He recommended an innovative surgical technique, developed at the mesothelioma research center, that circulates high doses of chemotherapy directly into the affected area, protecting other organs and minimizing the side effects of treatment.
And having the ability to minimize side effects, says Gump, was the most appealing aspect of this treatment option.
“What scared me the most was getting intravenous chemotherapy, because it goes into your bloodstream and affects your whole body, and anything can go wrong,” she states, referring to the possible “death sentence” she received in 2009. “I think [Dr. Alexander’s] is a better alternative because it targeted the area where the cancer was instead of giving me chemo through my veins and maybe causing damage to my entire body. My family and I were amazed that they could do this.”
The outcome of the procedure was even more amazing, says Gump. Although the operation took 8 hours to perform -- partly because it involved Dr. Alexander removing Gump’s spleen and peritoneum and cauterizing multiple smaller tumors in her abdomen -- and required hospitalization for 9 days, Gump was cancer-free afterwards. And a scan last February, nearly two years later, confirmed that she still is today.
“I owe my life to Dr. Alexander,” says Gump. “He and his team gave me a second chance at life, they gave me hope when I thought all hope was lost.”
Grateful for her positive outcome and inspired by the generosity and dedication of everyone she met during her stay at the University of Maryland, Gump decided to make a financial gift -- along with a few extras -- to The Mesothelioma Treatment and Research Center at UMGCC.
‘I Wanted to Help’
“Dr. Alexander is so passionate about his work and finding a cure for this horrific, terminal cancer that I wanted to help,” she says. “I even donated my tumors to his lab so they could do research on them! Without research, they would not have been able to come up with this alternative treatment.”
The Mesothelioma Treatment and Research Center at University of Maryland is an internationally recognized center specializing in diagnosis, treatment, and research of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. Nearly 1 in 10 people diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in the U.S. come to the center for consultation or treatment. But, according to Dr. Alexander, private financial support is critical to maintain and improve the standard of care.
“There is limited research and knowledge of this disease, and there are few effective treatment options. Research efforts are underway at the center, to discover more treatments, but we need help to continue to make discoveries,” commented Dr. Alexander. “Support from grateful patients like Tina Gump will help us to continue to make advances in peritoneal mesothelioma research and find new and more effective treatments for patients with cancer.”
Gump admits that gratitude is only one of the many emotions she is feeling these days.
“I was lucky. I was blessed with the funds to be able to donate, to help others,” she says. “I want Dr. Alexander and his team to be able to utilize this money to advocate for funding, to be able to continue to try to find a cure, or to make it so that nobody will lose their life to this disease.”
For more information, contact the University of Maryland School of Medicine Office of Development at 410-706-8503.