Surgeons replacing major organ to fight cancer

Surgeons are replacing a major organ to cure a cancer that attacks the digestive systems of thousands of Americans every year.

Robert Gehle loves classic cars, but recently his life was turned upside down.

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.

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 says 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," he said.

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

Sonnenday says the three to five 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.

As for Gehle, he's completely cancer-free and looking forward to a long life with his new liver. "Just in general, I'm pretty lucky," he said.

Doctors say, because of the scarcity of organs and the need that already exists, transplantation is only used when bile duct cancer patients do not have the option to have their tumor removed surgically.

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