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Organ Transplant Cures Cancer

A liver transplant cures one type of 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 Robert 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, Robert was selected to try something new that could cure him.

"To me, it's an obvious answer," Robert Gehle told Ivanhoe. "I can die, or I can have a chance at life, based on you guys doing this surgery."

The University of Michigan is one of a handful of U.S transplant centers studying liver transplantation as a cure for bile duct cancer. He 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," Christopher Sonnenday, M.D., an assistant professor of surgery at the University of Michigan said.

When a new liver became available doctors removed Robert's liver and the cancerous bile ducts, and replaced them with a healthy organ.

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

Dr. Sonnenday tells us 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 Robert, he's completely cancer-free and looking forward to a long life with his new liver.

"Just in general, I'm pretty lucky," Robert said.

The doctor says 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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