Telephone Support Line Connects Survivors, Sparks Friendships
Network - Summer 2011
By Lindsey Garner
“Cancer is nothing new to me. It’s not a stranger,” Robbie Archer says.
Her mother is a breast cancer survivor, and cancer took the lives of three of her aunts and a grandfather.
Even so, she never expected to get liver cancer.
In March 2008, Archer saw her primary care physician in Iuka, Miss., for what she thought was persistent heartburn. A CT scan revealed a large tumor on the right lobe of her liver.
A liver transplant, she was told, offered the best chance for survival.
Wanting a second opinion, her gastroenterologist helped arrange a consultation with Jean-Nicolas Vauthey, M.D., professor and chief of the liver service in
MD Anderson’s Department of Surgical Oncology.
In preparation, Archer researched her diagnosis. What she read overwhelmed and disheartened her.
Sifting through liver cancer statistics and prognoses, she found the Anderson Network Patient and Caregiver Support Line. The line links survivors and caregivers who have similar cancer diagnoses and treatments, regardless of where treatment was received.
Archer called Sam Short, senior administrative assistant for the Anderson Network, who promised to match her with a telephone support volunteer.
Thirty minutes later, Archer’s phone rang. “He said, ‘My name is Mike Mason, and I’m a liver cancer survivor.’
“I will never forget that day,” she says. “It was the first real hope I had.”
Mason, of Coffeyville, Kan., answered Archer’s questions and helped ease her uncertainty about her diagnosis by sharing his own story.
Diagnosed in 2004 with hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer, Mason refused to accept that he had only six months to live. He sought a second opinion at MD Anderson.
The friendship of cancer
At her consultation, Vauthey diagnosed Archer with primary intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma, a rare type of liver cancer, and designed a treatment plan — avoiding a liver transplant. First she underwent a portal vein embolization procedure to increase the amount of healthy liver tissue. Three weeks later, she was set to return for surgery to remove the tumor.
That day, Mason happened to be at MD Anderson for a check-up, so he, his girlfriend Sherrill, Archer and husband Ralph met.
“We hit it off immediately,” Archer says.
Having had the same surgery Archer was preparing for, Mason told her what to expect and reassured her she could handle it.
He told her that after she “licked” her cancer, she should give back to other patients by becoming a telephone support volunteer. She did both.
Archer and Mason stay in touch through email and phone calls — updating each other on their check-ups and lives.
In October 2010, the couples took a trip to Branson, Mo. They talked about their families, ate at restaurants, went to shows and enjoyed the attractions of Silver Dollar City.
“It’s turned out to be a long-term, wonderful friendship,” Archer says.