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Liver transplant for bile duct cancer increases survival rate

March 21, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
Robert Gehle's life was recently turned upside down when doctors diagnosed him with bile duct cancer. A tumor was blocking the tube that carries bile from the liver to the intestines for digestion.

Chemotherapy and radiation wouldn't work. Surgery to remove the tumor was out of the question, too. So, Gehle was selected to try something new that could cure him.

"I have two choices: I can die, or I can have a chance at life," Gehle told himself.

The University of Michigan is one of a handful of U.S. transplant centers studying liver transplantation as a cure for bile duct cancer. Dr. Chris Sonnenday, an assistant professor of surgery at the school, said for patients to be considered, doctors have to be sure the cancer has not spread.

"If someone has microscopic cancer anywhere, the anti-rejection drugs are like gasoline to that fire," Sonnenday said.

When a new liver became available, doctors removed Gehle's liver and the cancerous bile ducts, replacing it all with the healthy organ.

"The success that we've seen with liver transplantation for bile duct cancer has been pleasantly surprising," Sonnenday said.

Sonnenday said the 3-to-5 year survival rate is believed to be 60 to 70 percent, which is about the same for people who get liver transplants for other medical reasons.

Sonnenday said because of the scarcity of organs and the need that already exists, transplantation is only used when bile duct cancer patients can't have their tumor removed surgically.

As for Gehle, he's completely cancer-free and looking forward to a long life with his new liver.

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