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Darlene Smith

Hernia Helped Save Her Life

Holy Name Cancer Center - Darlene Smith

Darlene Smith knew something was wrong, probably something serious, but she didn't have medical insurance so she put off going to the doctor. Then fate intervened and took the timing right out of her hands. She is forever grateful.

At 64, Darlene had been experiencing vaginal bleeding for several years and knew she needed to find the cause. But she had been laid off from her job in a book company, couldn't afford to pay for extended insurance through COBRA, and was trying to hold off seeing a doctor until she was eligible for Medicare.

She also had a hernia protruding from her navel but that could wait. Or so she thought.

On a December night in 2016, she woke up at 3 a.m. with such severe pain from what she thought was the hernia that she needed to go to the hospital. Her daughter brought her to Holy Name Medical Center where she received the news that kick-started the fight for her life.

"I'll never forget when the doctor came in and told me my blood count [hemoglobin] was a 4.1 when it should have been higher than 10," Darlene said. "He asked if I was bleeding and when I said yes, he asked if it was weeks or months. I told him years and he knew right then I had a serious issue but he assured me I was in the right place."

Darlene had lost so much blood the doctors told her daughter she was in danger of having a heart attack. She received the immediate care she needed – transfusions and then a procedure to repair her hernia.

But her biggest battle was yet to come. She learned she had advanced uterine cancer, stage 4. She consulted Dr. Sharyn Lewin, the Medical Director of Gynecologic Oncology at Holy Name and nationally known for her expertise in all gynecologic cancers. Together, they planned her treatment, which would start with surgery.

"After I was diagnosed, I said to my daughter that I hope God gives me more time," Darlene said. "I was upset that I didn't come sooner to the hospital and friends asked why I didn't. But no one knows what it's like until you're in that situation. Then the hernia came and it turned out to be a blessing."

Darlene's treatment plan was all lined up but her path wasn't going to be so straight forward. Before she could undergo the procedure, she developed a severe infection. Surgery was postponed while Darlene was hospitalized and treated for the infection.

Meantime, Holy Name financial staff members worked with Darlene to find options for health coverage until she could sign up for Medicare. Her financial worries were alleviated and Darlene was able to focus on getting stronger for her surgery.

When Dr. Lewin was finally able to operate, the source of the infection was discovered – the cancer had spread to Darlene's colon and created a hole where bacteria was escaping. Despite the breadth of the disease, Dr. Lewin was able to remove all the cancer.

"I was happy with the support and wonderful care I was receiving – that was such a relief," Darlene said. "However, I still had a bunch of health problems – my legs were swollen, I needed care for my wounds and other issues. So I was on different floors all over Holy Name and everyone was just fantastic. I had a lot of work done on me by many wonderful people. Dr. Lewin and her team checked in on me on a daily basis, which was reassuring after such a big operation."

In recounting her story, Darlene downplayed some of the difficulties she faced: she had a colostomy bag for 15 months – "it's something I really didn't want but I got used to it and it helped be here today to talk about all of this." She also was in rehab after her surgery and had chemotherapy that made her sick and took her hair.

But she mustered the same grit she used when raising her two daughters after divorcing. She worked for 16 years as a cashier in a grocery store before being a customer service representative at a book company. She did what she had to do then, as she did when battling cancer, and always stayed positive.

"At first the chemo wasn't too bad, I was just a little queasy and losing my hair wasn't the worst thing in the world," she said. "By the fourth treatment, I had nausea for four or five days. But you just bear with it and it passes. Then I was back on my feet."

Nearly two and a half years after her diagnosis, Darlene is busy with life. She attends every one of her granddaughter's basketball games, visits with friends, shops and cooks.

"Having cancer is an experience no wants to go through but Dr. Lewin's expertise, devotion and compassion along with the medical personnel at Holy Name made it much more comfortable than I ever thought possible," Darlene said. "I'm so grateful to be here and to be able to still do all the things I did before."

Learn more about Darlene Smith's gynecologic oncology doctor today