Fighting Cancer, Bridging the Gap to a New Liver

A cancer diagnosis is hard to hear. But what can be even more difficult is a diagnosis after not having any symptoms. To Robert Dercks, a retired truck driver from Kaukauna, he didn’t know he had cancer, but he did sense something was wrong.

He originally sought medical help because he was experiencing symptoms of jaundice, which turned out to be an even more rare condition called bile duct strictures. This condition normally requires patients to receive intensive treatment to combat the infection. Bile ducts are the long, tube-like structures that carry bile to the intestines to aid in digestion in the intestines.

His skin was turning yellow, and he knew he needed some help. He sought help at Aurora BayCare Medical Center in Green Bay, where the team performed a number of tests using the latest in imaging technology.

A few days later, Robert received the news. It was cancer, but not just any cancer. This was a very rare cancer called Cholangiocarcinoma, a bile duct cancer that impacts the liver. Annually in the U.S., less than 20,000 people are diagnosed with this type of cancer. By comparison, more than 161,000 cases of prostate cancer are diagnosed, and more than 87,000 cases of melanoma are found each year.

The team at Aurora BayCare Medical Center determined he had a large tumor mass. Under the direction of Dr. John Bosco, a gastroenterologist at Aurora BayCare Medical Center in Green Bay, a plan was put into place.

If the tumor is not removed, this type of cancer is nearly always fatal. Most patients are simply maintained and recommended for palliative care. The only other option is a liver transplant, especially if the tumor couldn’t be removed. In Robert’s case, his tumor wasn’t removable.

In Robert’s case, his team, including the Aurora Transplant Services and Milwaukee-based physician Dr. Ajay Sahajpal, medical director for abdominal transplants at Aurora Health Care, recommended a newer protocol that would give Robert and his family the best options toward coming out of this battle on top.

The plan was to reduce the size of the tumor as best possible with as little impact as possible on an already jaundice-damaged liver. Once the tumor was small enough, Robert could be considered and added to the organ donation transplant list.

The protocol developed by the team at Aurora Health Care for treating this rare cancer would include several cycles of chemotherapy to reduce the size of the tumor. He would endure four cycles of chemo over four months. Once these four weeks were completed, Robert then began radiation treatment using a high-tech beam radiation system. It directly targeted the tumor. This was followed by an additional oral chemo treatment.

Robert was all in.

He underwent the treatment in Green Bay in November of 2015. By late March 2016, his cancer was at a point where he finally qualified to be listed on an organ transplant list.

To make the list, he needed a clear CAT scan of his chest, abdomen and pelvis to ensure the cancer had not spread. It had not by April 15, 2016, when he was officially listed on the transplant list. Now he had to wait.

Fortunately, his wait was shorter than many.

Less than a month later, on June 10, 2016, he received a call that a new liver was available. He and his family headed to Milwaukee and Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee for the transplant. Under the direction of Dr. Sahajpal and the team, some six hours later his new organ would be in place. A new organ, cancer free.

Next would come several months of rehabilitation. Robert spent time in Milwaukee and closer to home in Green Bay at the outpatient transplant clinic program at Aurora BayCare Medical Center.

For Robert, the joys of a new chance became even better when he and his wife welcomed their first grandchild, a baby girl, born in April 2017. 

Thanks to the integrated care team across eastern Wisconsin, Robert can now enjoy his retirement with those he loves the most – his wife, children and young granddaughter. It’s a team he’ll never forget. 

Aurora Health Care is a not-for-profit health care provider.

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