Meet our doctors: Surgical oncologist Byrne Lee on liver cancer

July 26, 2013 | by Tami Dennis

Liver cancer is increasing in the United States, with more than 30,000 new diagnoses expected this year. Although the outlook is often grim – more than 21,000 people will die of the disease in 2013 – treatments are becoming more effective.

Dr. Byrne Lee City of Hope surgical oncologist Byrne Lee discusses a rise in liver cancer in the U.S.

Here, Byrne Lee, M.D., a surgical oncologist at City of Hope, gives an overview of the field, while explaining his personal motivations.

First, how and why did you decide to become a surgical oncologist?  The field of surgical oncology has only recently been recognized by the American Board of Surgery as its own surgical specialty. The additional training we endure teaches us that the knife does not cure everything, and that collaborating with other medical specialties is how we succeed in the treatment of cancer. This concept and the technically challenging nature of cancer surgery is what encouraged me to enter the field.   What inspires you daily to do the work you do? On Dec. 24, 2005, my mother lost her fight against pancreatic cancer. The memories of her courage and strength during her treatments remain with me, and continue to inspire me to be a better cancer surgeon.

Has the prevalence of liver cancer changed? Primary liver cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer related deaths worldwide. It is not as common in the United States. However, recent data suggests that the prevalence is rising.

What are the biggest developments in the treatment for liver cancer?  Surgery on the liver has become safer due to modern surgical techniques and better anesthesia care. Because of this, liver surgeons have become more agreeable to take on cases which were deemed nonoperable in the past. Additionally, we are utilizing minimally invasive surgery in select cases to help speed up recovery, and reduce postoperative pain.

For patients who cannot have surgery, newer chemotherapies which target specific receptors on cancer cells are showing promise, and have become FDA approved for certain cancers of the liver. 

What is the biggest myth about liver cancer? “Surgery will cause my cancer to spread.”  This statement has led many patients to delay treatment of their cancer. Surgery is a major component in the treatment of liver cancer. There is no scientific proof that operations for cure disseminate cancerous cells.

Where is the field going? And what do you think will be accomplished in the next five or 10 years? The development of newer chemotherapy regimens will undoubtedly lead to more effective treatments. With better therapies, the possibility of downsizing or eradicating liver tumors will hopefully become a reality. 

What can people do to lower their risk of developing, or dying from, liver cancer? Primary liver cancers are often associated with viral hepatitis or alcoholic cirrhosis. If you are affected by these diseases, you should discuss with a specialist if you need to be on a surveillance program. Early detection leads to improved outcomes.

What advice do you have for patients recently diagnosed with liver cancer? If you are a patient who is recently diagnosed with a liver cancer, seeking out a physician or surgeon who specializes in the field would be of most importance. There are different types of cancers which affect the liver, primary or metastatic, and treatments are drastically different. Having your treatment with a multidisciplinary team and at a center with experience in treating cancers of the liver has been shown to benefit patient outcomes and reduce treatment related morbidity and mortality.

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