Innovative surgery approach helps young colon cancer patient and mom beat the odds
Cassie McKee mistook her first colon cancer symptoms for food poisoning in 2017. When the active mom’s sudden nausea didn’t subside, she feared she might be having complications from a recent C-section. Cassie, who was 38 at the time, had given birth to her second daughter four months previously. Her older daughter was 2 years old.
A CT scan revealed a significant colon obstruction.
“My doctor told me to go check myself into the ER,” recalls Cassie, who was rushed into emergency surgery a couple of days later. “It was all so sudden and shocking.”
During the surgery, doctors discovered that Cassie’s colon had ruptured due to obstruction caused by sigmoid colon cancer, and 50% of it needed to be removed. The biopsy results confirmed Cassie had colon cancer.
Colon cancer diagnosis leads to treatment at MD Anderson
Cassie arrived at her first appointment at MD Anderson in July, just one month after her initial symptoms started.
Her Austin oncologist had recommended she get a second opinion at MD Anderson to check out some spots on her liver. “I had heard that MD Anderson was the best cancer hospital, and I didn’t hesitate to set up an appointment there,” says Cassie.
An additional CT scan and biopsy results at MD Anderson revealed 13 cancerous lesions in both lobes of her liver. The cancer was stage IV.
“The news was just devastating,” says Cassie. “But everything changed for me when I met with Dr. Vauthey, and he said I was a candidate for the two-stage liver surgery.”
Liver cancer surgeon Jean-Nicolas Vauthey, M.D., is a pioneer specializing in treating patients like Cassie who have advanced colorectal cancer that has spread to the liver. He assured Cassie that he would develop a personalized surgical plan for her with MD Anderson’s team of specialists and state-of-the-art operating room.
Innovative surgical approach simplifies life for patient
Vauthey planned to remove Cassie’s cancerous spots in a two-stage liver surgery.
In October 2017, after four rounds of chemotherapy, Cassie underwent the first surgery to remove four cancerous spots on the left side of her liver. Then during the same procedure, interventional radiologist Bruno Odisio, M.D., performed a portal vein embolization. This procedure induces growth on one side of the liver, which helps the body heal after the other half of the liver is removed during the second surgery. Typically, these procedures would be performed in two separate surgeries, but Odisio and Vauthey found a way to perform both first-stage liver surgery and portal vein embolization together, making Cassie the first patient to undergo an innovative multidisciplinary surgical approach in MD Anderson’s hybrid interventional radiology/operation (hybrid IR/OR) suite.
Cassie was happy to hear that it would reduce her time under anesthesia, several hospital visits, and recovery and travel time.
“We were making multiple trips from Houston to Austin while juggling childcare and hotel costs, so this was great news,” she says.
This procedure was made easier by the hybrid IR/OR suite that combines the capabilities of a fully equipped operating room with imaging technology. It contains a robotic C-arm and multi-slice CT imaging components. Hybrid IR/OR suites can be used for various procedure types and multidisciplinary surgical approaches. They also allow for less invasive procedures than traditional surgery and offer faster recovery times for patients.
One month later, Vauthey performed a lobectomy on the right side of Cassie’s liver during the second stage of her surgery. After that, Cassie had no evidence of disease, but she had eight rounds of chemotherapy to get rid of any remaining cancer cells.
After a small recurrence in her lung was removed with surgery in May 2019, Cassie was again declared cancer-free.
Embracing life after colorectal cancer surgery
Dr. Vauthey continues to see Cassie every six months for her checkups.
“It’s a privilege to see where Cassie is now, completely cancer-free. As our first patient to undergo a two-stage hepatectomy in the hybrid IR/OR suite, she has played an important role in developing this innovative technique,” says Vauthey.
Since Cassie’s surgery, Vauthey and his MD Anderson colleagues have performed over 20 liver surgeries combined with portal vein embolization in the hybrid IR/OR. They recently published the largest study on two-stage hepatectomies involving portal vein embolization.
This summer marked five years since Cassie’s diagnosis. She and her family live in Georgetown, just outside Austin. She volunteers with her kids’ activities and even started a house-flipping business.
“I am so thankful for the care I received at MD Anderson,” says Cassie. “You can tell that Dr. Vauthey and his physician assistant Steven Wei care for their patients. I’m now cancer-free and able to raise my girls and be here with my family."