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.
article continues after advertisement
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.”