Groundbreaking Heated Chemotherapy Treatment Gives Patient Renewed Hope
June 28, 2018
| by Wayne Lewis
Patient Christopher Haskell (right) with four of his children
In the moment, Christopher Haskell wouldn’t have called himself lucky.
Suffering from abdominal pain that had grown severe over the course of a few days, he visited his physician at his wife’s behest. The doctor pinpointed the problem as an inflamed appendix, in turn urging him to go to the emergency room.
After a long wait on that Friday afternoon in July 2016, the ER surgeon removed Haskell’s appendix. Later, there was good news — and bad news.
“They got my appendix just at the right time, and fixed a little hernia,” Haskell said. “But they also saw a tumor growing on the side of my colon
Today, Haskell calls that episode his “fortuitous appendectomy.” The doctors caught the tumor, which had begun in his appendix, early.
That day was the start of a journey that would bring him from his home in the Santa Barbara, California, area to City of Hope under the care of surgeon Byrne Lee, M.D.
— giving Haskell new perspective in the process. Thanks to Lee’s skills and an advanced procedure that combines surgery and chemotherapy, Haskell remains cancer-free and thankful nearly two years after the tumor was discovered.
“It’s very difficult to express your gratitude fully to somebody who saved your life,” said Haskell, a father of five. “How can you ever do that justice? How can you ever make them feel exactly how important your life is for your family?”
A New Approach
Tumors that start in the appendix are extremely rare and can be slow-growing, but they also tend to infiltrate and spread within the abdominal cavity in a way that makes them hard to distinguish. The surgeon in the ER made his best effort to clear out the mass, but ultimately an exploratory surgery would uncover some remnants.
The incidental early detection vastly improved Haskell’s chances of survival. Nonetheless, the tumor’s qualities called for a particularly aggressive treatment.
Byrne Lee, M.D.
With HIPEC, surgeons first perform a major procedure removing all visible traces of abnormal growth in the abdominal cavity. Then, to eliminate any traces that are hidden or too tiny to see, the medical team bathes the entire area in chemotherapy warmed to about 107 degrees Fahrenheit. Tumors generally can’t stand up to heat like healthy tissue can. The drug is delivered directly to the abdominal cavity because that part of the body is relatively short on blood veins, hampering chemotherapy delivered intravenously.
City of Hope has a special advantage in offering HIPEC. The rigorous treatment requires not just advanced surgical skill but also easy interdisciplinary collaboration across surgeons, medical oncologists, radiologists and others. The institution has taken on a leadership position as the highest-volume center for HIPEC in Los Angeles County and among the most prolific in the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.
In Haskell’s case, Lee performed the surgery laparoscopically to lessen the patient’s burden and speed his healing. The entire procedure took eight hours. Haskell is appreciative — and impressed.
Haskell said: “I always believed Dr. Lee was the right guy. I remember asking, ‘Eight hours? You stand up for eight hours?’ It would have been easier for him to do a normal incision, but my recovery time would have been far longer.”
He estimates he’s at 90 percent these days — not bad considering that with a second hernia, removed by Lee, Haskell has tallied four abdominal surgeries over the past couple of years.
Buoyed by his faith, Haskell embraced his experience as a reminder that every moment matters.
“It’s made an impact on everything I think and do,” he said. “It gives me the sense that it’s a very finite time I have with my kids and my wife. It’s only a finite number of opportunities for me to help people, be productive and be a good citizen.”
Staying active and fully engaged with his family are top priorities for Haskell. Later this year, he and his adult son will hike Mount Whitney. They also are planning a hike of Mount Kilimanjaro for 2019 to celebrate the father’s 60th birthday.
Adrenaline and achievement figure into these trips, but togetherness is the primary goal.
“It’s just a great chance to be able to talk and share,” Haskell said.
He also welcomes day-to-day adventures with his school-age children. With the outlook of a grateful survivor, he’s more likely to put aside routine to take them go-karting or beachcombing on a whim. Haskell treasures those moments, and looks forward to many more.
“I have five kids. I intend to stick around for a long time,” he said.
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