This year, Helen Szablya and Charles Dann are celebrating 20 years of marriage. It's a milestone they weren't sure they would both live to see.
Five years ago, tests showed Szablya had stage-four cancer with a tumor so big that doctors said they couldn't even see her ovaries.
"The doctor called me in the next day," Szablya recalled. "He said, 'I need you to understand you have got a very serious kind of cancer.'"
"Eighty percent of ovarian cancers are diagnosed very late," said Dr. Armando Sardi, chief of surgical oncology, Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
Sardi offered Szablya a new and aggressive treatment called HIPEC. First, he removed all traces of her tumor along with her spleen, gall bladder, ovaries, uterus, appendix, fallopian tubes and part of her liver. Then, he put catheters in Helen’s abdomen and delivered heated chemotherapy.
"Heat kills cancer cells but also enhances the effects of chemotherapy," Sardi explained.
The chemo circulates for 90 minutes and reaches about 109 degrees Fahrenheit. Researchers are studying HIPEC as a first-line therapy for women with ovarian cancer in a phase-two trial.
"We are trying to see if we can be more proactive in preventing more women from recurring," said Dr. Teresa Diaz-Montes, gynecologic oncologist at Mercy Medical Center.
Szablya has been cancer-free for five years.
"It saves your life!" Szablya said.
"It’s really quite amazing to understand what Helen has gone through and what amazing odds she's overcome," Dann said.
Now, the couple is looking forward to celebrating many more anniversaries together.
HIPEC has been used in patients with stomach and colon cancers and in those who have had their ovarian cancer recur in the abdomen.
The new, phase-two study is testing the approach as a first treatment for ovarian cancer. Patients still receive standard chemotherapy following HIPEC. Researchers are now enrolling patients. There are no geographic limitations to the study. Patients can enroll by calling 410-332-9294.