Debbie's Fight for LIFE

My name is Helen Stehlik, and I have created this campaign for my amazing beautiful friend Debbie Caquias.  Debbie's sister Jayne and our good friend Carolynn are part of this fundraising team - we are DEBBIE'S DEFENDERS.

Debbie has heroically been battling several different forms of cancer since 2007.  Countless extensive surgeries and radiation has left her severely disfigured - most visible on her face but all over her body, as well.  After her most recent surgery she has since contracted MRSA while in the hospital - another battle to be fought.

The hard facts are that Debbie will never taste food or eat or swallow ever again; she hasn't had food or drink for 3 1/2 years now; she is peg fed liquid into her stomach and 'feels' hungry all the time.  Her daughters will never hear their mother's beautiful voice, as she will never speak again; the last surgery removed most of her tongue down to her esophagus plus most of her cheek.  She can no longer blink or smile due to nerve damage from the surgeries.  When she is able to muster the courage and strength to go out, she endures people staring at her. That is hard on Debbie, but even harder on her daughters. Sadly, people can be rude and thoughtless in their actions.

As you can imagine, this has taken a great toll on Debbie and her family - her husband Sam and their two young daughters. Debbie is the bravest, most selfless, positive, kind, caring person we know - always concerned about others above herself. She continues to be fight and be positive that at least she is alive.  We need to help her with this fight.

Debbie deserves the very best treatment available to not only help her fight the cancer but also to rebuild her beautiful face and enable her to smile, talk and do all the things we take for granted. 


I am creating this campaign with the hopes of getting Debbie the IMMUNOTHERAPY TREATMENT that could possibly save her life.  We are hoping to help cover many of the expenses that go along with the extreme level of care Debbie needs - surgeries, hospital co-pays, nursing care, etc.  Her husband, Sam, is a trauma nurse and had used up all vacation and sick time; taking unpaid days must be a last resort. Trying to keep some semblance of 'normal' for their girls is a constant challenge.

We are also sharing Debbie's story with the hope that someone with the skills and experience dealing with traumatic nerve facial reconstruction may come forward to help her repair what the cancer has taken from her... her smile, her face, her confidence.

Note: Debbie has had an amazing team of doctors at Montefiore Medical Center that have been supportive to her plight and have given her the most amazing care.  We are currently looking for nerve specialists that can work with her doctors to provide reconstruction and alternative treatments to continue this fight.

Debbie loves spending time with her girls, volunteering and involved in community causes & events, building them up to be strong and resilient (just like her!) She is a vital part of the Parent Support Team at her girls martial arts school. One of Debbie's main goals is to be able to watch her girls test for their Black Belts in Taekwondo in July.  Debbie is an incredibly talented and creative baker, making the most beautiful and delicious cookies! (Although she's never been able to taste them herself!) Debbie tirelessly volunteers her time and abilities to everyone around her, especially making quilts for the KindQuilts organization that distributes quilts to sick children.

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Ways to help Debbie:

GIVE  whatever you can.  No donation is too small.
SHARE  this on social media
EMAIL  this page to your family and friends
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Please continue to lend all your strength, love and prayers to Debbie and her family.  Debbie continues to face an uphill battle; we are trying to give her the best possible chance of survival and ease some of the burdens she and her family face.
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Debbie's Personal journey and story:
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In Sept 2007 I was first diagnosed with base of tongue squamous cell carcinoma {cancer]. Referred to Westchester in Valhalla for a consult with radiology & I met with an awesome Dr Richard C who told me surgery is not an option because the cancer is too extensive. So, we opted for 7 weeks mon-fri of radiation and 3 doses of chemotherapy- week 1, week 3, week 7. I had a mask made; they need this to be able to secure your head to the bed so you don't move during radiation treatment. It’s the most awful feeling having your head tied down. I was grateful when they agreed to at least give me some eye holes. As the weeks went on strapping me down got easier but I noticed the nurse would have handfuls of my hair all over their hands I found this so difficult to watch, it was emotionally draining to see my hair slowly falling out so we decided to shave what I had left off, there you go done. At least that was out the way. During treatment I needed to be admitted into hospital, I was so weak. My treatments continued but as an inpatient for a while, I was eating through a peg tube because the radiation had caused such severe burns to my mouth and throat it would have been impossible to eat the old fashioned way.

I ended my treatment, it’s actually a very scary time, I felt so alone, for weeks now I’d had this whole team of Drs and nurses watching over me and now - ring that bell – you’re on your own. I did not miss the radiation just the watchful eye. I was referred to a wonderful ENT Dr Angela D. She was so welcoming and seemed to know her stuff, it was nice to have her on my side. I would see her once a month & she would check for visual signs of cancer and then set my scan up. Waiting for the first one was so hard - did it work, didn’t it, what more could be done?? Getting the call I was all clear NO signs of cancer remained was amazing. I remember crying. I saw her for years; same routine only the appointments went from monthly to bi-monthly, once a month, and I finally graduated to once every 6 months. We thought that was it, we tried to get on with our lives, we’d made it, it was hard and painful but we’d done it. My marriage was stronger for it, we kept our worry to when I had my scans but the rest of the time we got on with raising our two daughters.

Skip forward a few years and things had been amazing. Suddenly I found one of my wisdom teeth came loose. I ended up in Westchester at what we thought was an ‘experienced’ dentist. We had two consults with him, made absolutely sure he had dealt with post radiation patients before. He shrugged it off; of course he had many times. We talked about my wisdom tooth he said while he was in there he may as well remove them all. I figured he knew what he was doing and that maybe once one comes loose they all do, I didn’t use my wisdom teeth so why not. I was sedated for the procedure. I remember waking up and being in a lot of pain, asking him to stop. Instead they gave me more sedation. When I finally woke up I was missing almost all of my teeth. I was devastated, in pain and bleeding a lot. I had to have hyperbaric chamber treatment to help with healing. I had some before and some after. Once I had finished the treatment I went back because I had a lot of sharp areas in my mouth. The dentist this time was rude & made us wait an hour. He walked in the room so aloof. I asked why my gums aren't healing and why were they sharp? He told me I had to be patient- it takes time to heal?? To go away and come back when its healed. He also asked me if I’d ever broken my jaw? I said no and I think that would have shown up in my records or on my scans. I went back because it wasn't healing and he refused to see me. I refused to leave until he did; he wouldn't make eye contact with me said it was my fault I hadn’t been honest with him about the previously broken jaw and there's nothing more he could do for me. MY JAW HAD NEVER BEEN BROKEN!

I asked my lovely Dr Angela D if she knew of anyone (she had referred me to this bad guy) She sent me to the city to meet a Dr who took one look at me and said I’m sorry but this is way over my head and sent me to Dr J B, who has done everything he can to help repair some of the damage the last guy did.

Just when I started to think I was getting over the worst of this nightmare I found that the removal of my teeth had started osteonecrosis of the jaw (this is like bone just starts to crumble). One night I had a searing pain in my right jaw; it turns out it snapped. Dr J B was able to repair it with metal link, it worked great and he did it from inside so I looked the same. I was so happy I wanted to cry. Then a few weeks later the skin started to suck into the metal and it ripped open; apparently radiated skin does not like non-human material. I was referred to Montefiore in the Bronx, to wonderful Dr G. He and the team have become my saviors. He was able to take one of my leg bones and some skin and muscle and fashion me a new half jaw. That was pretty devastating surgery, during it I lost one of the nerves in my face so I have been unable to blink or smile or talk properly and swallow since (although I don’t give up hope there’s something that can be done). We have been working on reducing the graft & working out why I can't swallow over the course of three years. Then in 2018 I developed an abscess on my left jaw. It just wouldn't clear up. I eventually went to see Dr J B; he took one look and said I’m sorry I think you have cancer. I was in shock – it’s been 11 years how could I get cancer again? I don’t even eat, never mind drink or smoke. They took a biopsy and confirmed I had a fresh case of cancer; not even a recurrence, a brand new type of cancer. I heard the phrase ‘you're just unlucky’. I tried to go to a well-known cancer center, Sloan-Kettering, thinking I’d be in the best hands. To cut a long story short they made me wait a month just to see them, kept sending paperwork errors, then once they did see me the Dr walked in sat down and said ‘why have you come here”? I was shocked I said because your said to be one of the best cancer treatment places and I have cancer. He said “I’ve had a look over your films and what you have is extensive, it’s up in your cheek & your throat. There's nothing that can be done. You have no surgical option so I suggest you go home and make the most of your time. We were devastated, why? We had done everything that was asked of us? So why?????

We cried a lot and on the way home I messaged Dr G, told him what just happened. He texted me right back, “come see us tomorrow” and just like that I was in. I saw all three Drs and they said we're going to do our best to fix this. We had tests and met with oncology, radiation medicine, scans… did it all and within two weeks I was in surgery where, although it was physically devastating, they managed to remove all of the cancer. During my surgery they needed to transplant one of my chest muscles. While doing this they found a lymph node under the muscle, they sent it off to the lab. You guessed it, it came back with a 3rd type of cancer. Devastating news, to say the least.

My most recent surgery to try and correct my jaw has left me the most disfigured. I have wonderful friends helping me work out my options, as my best hope is Immunotherapy Treatment. It is so costly I just don’t know if it is a viable option. I would welcome any surgeons willing to take on my very complicated case for facial reconstruction. My greatest wish is to be around for my daughters as they are growing up and at some point, hopefully, be able to look in a mirror again.

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Fundraising team: Debbie's Defenders (3)

Helen Stehlik 
Organizer
Middletown, NY
Debbie Caquias 
Beneficiary
Carolynn Katenkamp 
Team member
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