The ARF principle – absolute rigid flexibility – is one of many things that Suzanne “Su” Wilkinson Davis has learned in 25 years as a Boy Scouts volunteer.
That outlook has helped Su accept difficulties in her life – including the devastating news last year that she had life-threatening liver and bile duct cancer. The diagnosis struck the active 66-year-old mother and grandmother unexpectedly last fall.
Routine bloodwork from her annual physical came back abnormal. So, Su underwent additional tests and was diagnosed with stage III cancer that was spreading quickly.
“From the moment I was diagnosed, it was an emotional and physical rollercoaster,” says Su. “I had no symptoms and felt great, so it didn’t make sense. But I knew the diagnosis was real and I had to act fast.”
Her Oklahoma-hometown physicians could not pinpoint where Su’s cancer originated from, only that it was spreading, so she decided to seek a second opinion. Her son suggested she come to Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals.
On November 21, Su met with Nancy Lewis, MD, medical oncologist with the Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson. After running more tests, Dr. Lewis examined Su and suggested she meet with her colleague Cataldo Doria, MD, PhD, director of Jefferson’s Division of Transplantation.
Dr. Doria discussed her treatments options extensively. The cancer was too extensive to allow the surgeon to cut it out with the liver in Su’s body as often done. But Dr. Doria felt that Su could undergo a liver auto-transplant – in which the surgeon and his team would remove the patient’s liver, cut out the cancer on a table in the OR and reimplant the organ.
“Ms. Davis’ case was very unique in that there was a chance to remove the cancerous portion of her liver and allow her to keep the healthy portion through a procedure called liver auto-transplant,” explains Dr. Doria.
“Not every liver cancer patient is a candidate for this procedure, but because of the way the cancer was positioned in the liver, we were able to consider this option,” he says. “It’s a very rare procedure.”
While an auto transplant was an option for Su, Dr. Doria counseled her that it was a challenging operation and her chance of surviving the operation was 50-50.
“I decided I needed to do this,” says Su. “I not only had the chance to survive but also to return to the quality of life I enjoy.”
Su is active and has long spent much of her time in the outdoors.
“Fly fishing, golfing, gardening, camping and volunteering with Tulsa’s Zoo, the Boy Scouts and the Oxley Nature Center, top my outdoor interests. While indoors, I like to cook, knit and quilt. I decided the surgery was worth a shot and my family backed me 100 percent.”
So, on December, 2, 2011, Su was wheeled to the OR.
In a 12-hour procedure, Dr. Doria and his transplant team removed Su’s liver completely from her body. Then, Dr. Doria cut away the tumor from her liver. He then transplanted Su’s “healthy” liver back into her body, reattaching each blood vessel to the organ.
After surgery, Su was in a coma. She emerged from a coma about two weeks after the surgery. Soon after, she started inpatient rehabilitation.
“I learned how to walk, eat and write again. I quickly graduated from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane … and then just my legs.”
Su spent Christmas and New Year’s Day in the hospital. When released, she rented an apartment in Delaware to be close to her son, daughter-in-law and two granddaughters.
She remained in the area for another four months and continued coming to Jefferson for follow-up appointments.
“I feel great and can’t believe I was as sick as I was. I am mastering the bus and train schedules and visited both the Philadelphia International Flower Show and the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s ‘Van Gogh Up Close’ exhibit alone,” she says. “Along this journey, I’ve had many ‘a-ha’ moments. Being able to go and enjoy myself without help was one of those moments.”
What does the future hold for Su? The prognosis is good. Future testing will determine whether she will need preventative chemotherapy and radiation.
“A lot has happened in my world,” says Su. “But thanks to a great medical team and the support of my family, I feel very fortunate and thankful. Instead of seeing this cancer as a problem, I see it was an opportunity … to build on my past experiences and continue to learn and grow.”