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This is one in a series of occasional updates on the lives of people featured by STAT during our first year.

The day of the surgery felt like a dream.

Just as he had nine months earlier, Stephen Phillips woke up before dawn at the Shadyside Courtyard Marriott in Pittsburgh. The hotel lobby was just as desolate, the neighborhood bathed in the same smoky blue light. Phillips knew every move he was about to take. He’d pass through the sliding doors as they opened with an automatic hiss. He’d walk a block away, and would shimmy onto an identical operating table, his veins coursing with the same anesthetics, his heart and lungs kept pumping by the same machines.


But there was one big difference. When STAT wrote about the surgery Phillips had last February, his insides had been coated with the jelly-like tumors of appendix cancer. Back then, he was about to have the inside of his abdomen scraped with burning wires and steeped with heated chemotherapy in the hope that it would extend his life.

Now, in early October, his scans showed no evidence of cancer. He was there to have bits of his intestines stitched back together again — a kind of postscript to his marathon surgery.


Yet the experience was so uncannily similar to the last time he was there that he couldn’t help feeling dread.

“I had to dig deep in my inner being for the strength,” Phillips said in a recent interview. “I told myself, ‘Hey, Steve, this is a good thing.’”

The 58-year-old has tried to see a lot of the good things throughout his year of illness. During the regular four- or five-hour stints in the chemo room, he made friends as drugs dripped into a port in his chest. He got so many boxfuls of get-well cards from support group members that the nurses asked if he was a rapper.

But it’s been a rough year: the months of chemo, five surgeries, a grueling recovery. Pulling himself up stairs for the first time in his house in Longmeadow, Mass., was a triumph. “It seemed like I had climbed Mount Everest,” he said.

“He’s already outlived the natural history of the disease, but it’s at a cost,” said his surgeon, Dr. David Bartlett, of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Patients clamor for this controversial surgery; like Phillips, they see it as the only option to stay alive. Bartlett has performed it 1,000 times, and has even taught it to specialists in Kazakhstan. Yet he is also doing research in the hope he can offer patients a safer treatment. It involves mixing their tumor and immune cells and then injecting the immune cells back into lymph nodes. If this immunotherapy works, those cells will have been “trained” to recognize and attack the cancer.

Clinical trials, like the months and years after cancer surgery, are uncertain, full of watching and waiting. Phillips is just glad to be back to his law practice and his volunteer work, happy to go out for dinner with his family and smell coffee in the mornings. But as Bartlett put it, “We need better approaches. We certainly hope that some day we don’t have to put patients through all of this.”

    • Bill, I just wanted to sadly correct your post. Stephen Phillips has passed, but will continue to be alive thru his beautiful wife and amazing kids. He will continue to be in the hearts of those he has touched with his volunteer work and community. I unfortunately wasn’t able to meet this man, but after my last post, his son reached out to me. So he has passed, but his kindness and big heart live on thru his family. Amen 🙏🏻

  • My husband was diagnosed with this aweful cancer June 18th 2019. We have done 6 months of chemo this Christmas is his last chemo. His Hipec surgery is scheduled January 15th, 2020. He has been diagnosed with mixed goblet cell carcinoid adenocarcinoma. Primary source appendix which has been removed. spread to small intestines 15 inches also removed. A piece of large intestines removed and his omentum is covered with a lot of mucin in abdomen. Also found in three of the 23 lymph nodes. If anyone could help me understand what to expect please email me. [email protected]
    I would appreciate talking to anyone knowing about appendix cancer and hipec. Success stories or not. I’m heart broken and have three kids that are devasted over their dads health. Thank you so much. I pray for everyone who has or is going thru this aweful disease. Thank you Traci Mahar

  • I found this article very interesting. My husband is currently fighting this awful disease. The surgeon was unable to remove all the disease, we didn’t get a complete Hipec. There is so little known about this. Thank you for sharing. Coincidentally, I work in Longmeadow, MA

    • Hi Michelle, I just posted bc my husband has been diagnosed this June and scheduled January 15,2020 for hipec surgery. How is your husband doing. And how are you doing thru all of this. My prayers are being sent your way. Thank you for your time. Traci mahar We also live in mass Boston

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