Tracey Fenstermacher didn't think life could get any better. She'd celebrated her 40th birthday two months earlier with everything she could ask for: Good health, a wonderful husband, two loving sons and a thriving automotive business.
Then she noticed a lump on her thigh. It was August of 2015, during a family trip to the Little League World Series. The lump wasn't painful, but friends urged her to go to a local emergency room - which sent her to a surgical oncologist for a biopsy.
The results came back. Tracey had synovial sarcoma, a diagnosis she'd never even heard of.
"Hearing 'You have cancer' ...my mind and body just froze," she remembers.
She and her husband, Chris, decided to get the hardest part of the journey out of the way first - breaking the news to their sons, who were nine and eleven.
"We sat there for hours hugging and crying. We didn't even have a plan yet," Tracey shared.
High Stakes and Big Decisions
As Tracey struggled to process her new reality, a friend - a cancer survivor - recommended she go to Penn Medicine's Abramson Cancer Center (ACC) for treatment.
"I knew Penn is a big hospital, so I was worried I'd be a number," Tracey remembers. "Other than the cancer, that's what scared me the most - the chance of being lost in the crowd."
The distance also worried her. The Fenstermachers live in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, a two-and-a-half hour drive to Abramson in Philadelphia.
"In my mind I was thinking, 'What about our kids, our business?'"
Tracey's friend was persistent in his belief in the level of care offered by Abramson Cancer Center, though, and Tracey finally relented. She and Chris made the 100-mile drive from Pottsville to Philly for a second opinion.
"And that's when my outlook changed, because that's when I met my dream team," Tracey says with a laugh.
A Care Team and a Plan
Lee Hartner, MD, William Levin, MD, and Kristy Weber, MD, met with Tracey and Chris and laid out a plan for cancer treatment that included 18 weeks of chemotherapy, followed by radiation and surgery to remove what remained of her tumor. In keeping with Penn's commitment to multispecialty care, they'd continue to collaborate closely throughout Tracey's treatment.
"As with all patients, we all worked together to determine who and what Tracey needed, and pull in other specialists as necessary," Dr. Weber explains. "Tracey's case was unique in that she required vascular reconstruction. Dr. Paul Foley was added to the team for that reason."
It was more attention, detail and expertise than she ever dreamed she'd receive.
"That first visit was a godsend. I couldn't believe how many of my fears went away. I remember walking into Dr. Weber's office, and she already knew so much about me. She said, 'I'm so sorry you have a sarcoma,' which I appreciated - just the compassion and the realness she offered. I had six pages of questions, and she answered every single one of them before I even had a chance to take the paper out. I left Penn saying, 'So when can we get started?'"
Tracey and Chris decided to travel to Philadelphia for Tracey's treatments, staying at the hospital for five days every three weeks as she underwent chemo. Family back home in Pottsville would care for their boys.
"We could have gone somewhere closer to home but I thought, 'In a year, am I going to be here?' That's how we looked at our choice to go to Penn - as an investment in my life."
As chemo got underway, Tracey was struck by Penn's focus on every aspect of her wellbeing.
"I remember Dr. Levin, my radiation oncologist, asking about my state of mind. I told him I was experiencing some anxiety. He said, 'I'm glad you told me. Some patients don't.' Then he sat with Chris and me and explained meditation - its benefits and how to do it. He showed me a meditation app I could use to get me in the habit of meditating ten minutes a day. Within two days, it started to ease me."
Tracey was also surprised by the degree of communication and coordination between members of her Penn care team - a welcome reprieve from the endless phone calls, scheduling, and research she'd juggled prior to coming to Penn after her diagnosis .
"All of the coordination - it was done for me once I got to Penn. I was able to focus on my family, my state of mind, my healing and my business when there was time."
During chemotherapy, Tracey met one more new confidante - a fellow patient, Arianne, who she now considers one of her best friends.
"When I was first diagnosed, I didn't know where to turn. It was great talking to Arianne, who was steps ahead of me in defeating cancer. Arianne came to chemo carrying a 20-pound kettlebell; I thought I was doing well with my three-pound weights! She helped encourage me."
Hope Grows Brighter
Chemo and radiation shrunk Tracey's sarcoma by more than 50%. The final phase of her treatment - surgery - would remove what remained.
"Dr. Weber is my orthopaedic oncologist. She removed the tumor," Tracey explains. "It was the last part of my procedure, but I met her at the very beginning, when I met all of my doctors. I liked knowing that she'd been part of my journey from the start."
Tracey's surgery came with an added complication: Her tumor surrounded her femoral artery and vein. This meant a bypass was necessary. Dr. Foley, a Penn vascular surgeon, took a vein from her left leg and reconstructed it at the tumor site in her right thigh where the femoral artery and vein had been removed with the sarcoma.
"The hospital I went to before coming to Penn was bringing plastic surgeons in, saying I'd need to undergo plastic surgery to fix my leg. Dr. Weber told me right away that that wasn't necessary. And she was right. She also told me that years ago, patients lost their limbs in scenarios like mine. I'm so thankful Dr. Weber specializes in this, and that all those outcomes were avoided."
Before her surgery - scheduled for April 2016 - Tracey learned about a community event, Steps to Cure Sarcoma, taking place that June. She was determined to participate - and did. Only two months following surgery to remove her mass, Tracey walked the one-mile route at the event with her family and friends - including her two boys, who were grateful to have their mom by their side. At this year's 3rd Annual Steps to Cure Sarcoma, she went even further and completed the 5k. Her team wore shirts that read, "No one fights alone" - a testament to how Tracey feels about her cancer journey.
"I felt so supported and so taken care of from the second I walked into Penn, and by every person in my life, from my family to my friends to my employees."
Today, Tracey is committed to helping others navigate the fear and confusion that comes with a sarcoma diagnosis and other lesser-known cancers.
"My husband and I want to give back to help people with these rare cancers," she says. "I want to speak to patients and help them like my care team, friends, colleagues, and family helped me."
With Penn being such a big hospital, Tracey worried that she would be treated as a number - but instead she and her husband have made contacts and relationships that have changed her forever.
"Before we even had a treatment plan, a saying came over me: 'Breathe in strength, exhale fear and sadness.' No one ever wants to hear the word cancer, but I truly believe there's always a positive that comes from a negative. Coming to the Abramson Cancer Center and meeting the amazing doctors, nurses, and a new best friend in Arianne really put life into perspective. I've got many positives."