Liver Cancer Survivor

A New Appreciation For Life Is Born

Being diagnosed with Stage IIIB liver cancer at 29 years old shocked Anna Webster. As a single mother with a 10-year-old daughter, she faced an uncertain future. After successful treatment, Anna now has no evidence of disease and shares her story to provide support and advice for others affected by this difficult cancer.

My liver cancer was caught completely by accident, and oddly enough, it saved my life. In 2008, I had muscle weakness, irregular heartbeats and hallucinations, and I passed out. Rushed to the ER, I spent the next three days in the hospital as the doctors tried to figure out what was wrong. Tests showed I had critically low levels of potassium, also known as hypokalemia.

Suspecting the hypokalemia was due to a problem with my kidneys, a nephrologist ordered a CT. Several days later he called to say my kidneys looked great, but he saw a 9 cm mass on the background of my liver. He arranged for me to see a gastrointestinal doctor.

At home, I searched online for more information, and I became very frightened. I convinced myself it was a benign mass. I didn’t have any symptoms, nor did I have any of the common things that would typically cause liver cancer. I was very active and had even run a 15K the month before. I thought I was pretty healthy.

The GI doctor ordered bloodwork. On April 1, 2009, I met with her to get the results. She looked at me and told me it was serious. She grabbed a pen and paper and said, “I’m going to write all this down for you because you won’t remember everything.” The diagnosis was hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). She’d tested for the tumor marker alpha-fetoprotein (AFP). In healthy people, the normal range of AFP is 0 to 5.9. Mine was 3,472.

This was no April Fool’s joke. I was in shock. I was so upset that I had to call my dad to meet me in the parking lot to calm me down before I could drive myself home.

Everything I’d read said the best chance of survival was either surgery or a liver transplant, and the doctor had a direct connection to a colleague at another research-based hospital that also had a transplant team. She sent me to get evaluated for a liver transplant, and she emphasized how great it was to have found the cancer by accident.

For two weeks, I went through a transplant evaluation and held onto the hope that I would be eligible for one. But the results showed I was not a candidate. The other option was surgical resection to remove as much of the tumor as possible.

The tumor laid over the hepatic artery, so the surgeon carefully peeled it off and cut as close as possible, knowing he wouldn’t be able to ensure a completely clean margin. He also found that the tumor had focally invaded a nearby lymph node so it was removed as well. After pathology, my official diagnosis was Stage IIIB. For the next year, I was on a strict follow-up schedule to monitor for a recurrence every three months.

In June 2010, a complication from the first surgery required a second surgical resection. A blockage caused blood to back up. Approximately 40 percent of my liver had become necrotic, so the entire left lobe was surgically removed. Fortunately, over time, my liver regenerated, and scans confirm it.

During a standard checkup in October 2010, my AFP level increased to 27 and an MRI showed a 0.5 mm spot on my liver in the same area as the first. My treatment team agreed the best procedure would be chemoembolization. I admit, I freaked out because I had hoped again for a transplant, but I sought a second opinion, and those doctors agreed with mine.

The procedure was a success. I have no evidence of disease, and I continue to have follow-up appointments every six months.

Cancer was the worst thing and the best thing that ever happened to me. I have a new appreciation for life. I keep a copy of my latest blood test with my tumor marker number on the wall of my office. When stressed, I stop and look at that number and realize that being alive is what really matters.

Anna’s Recommendations

  1. Never go to appointments or scans alone.
  2. Seek a second opinion. They bring confidence to making decisions.
  3. Find a research hospital that is at the forefront of liver cancer.
  4. Stay off the internet. If you must search, take the information with a grain of salt. Remember that people who comment online are often desperate, and reviewers typically are paid for their opinions or are angry.
  5. Find and seek a support group. Whether the support is on social media, at a hospital or in person, finding people you can relate to will help.