Given six months to live, woman gets a chance at life, love and a new baby thanks to Liver Tumor Program
November 20, 2019
For two years, Nicole Leon worked out six days a week, sweating endlessly on an indoor bike trying to lose weight that wouldn’t go away. In October 2016, after visiting her local emergency room with a bout of food poisoning, she discovered the problem. Nicole had a large mass on her liver – a lesion, or hepatic adenoma – that turned out to be the size of a football.
At age 32, the seemingly healthy and happy Leon was quickly referred for testing, and the news wasn’t good: A biopsy of the tumor came back as hepatocellular cancer.
"It was shocking," recounted Leon, who was living in Chicago and enjoying a busy social life and successful career in human resources. "They said it was so large it had gone over the hepatic artery and that it was inoperable."
She was told she had six months to live. "The doctors didn’t know when or why the tumor had started growing, and they suggested I go into palliative care." That answer wasn’t acceptable to Leon, who flew across the country for a second opinion. This time she was told she had several tumors that couldn’t be surgically removed.
She was the only one in the world willing to operate on me and give me another chance at life.
In January 2017, Nicole was referred by a friend to the University of Chicago Medicine’s newly opened Liver Tumor Program. Led by medical director Anjana Pillai, MD, and transplant and hepatobiliary surgeon Talia Baker, MD, the program offers patients with liver tumors the opportunity to see a multidisciplinary group of specialists who are focused solely on the care of patients with liver disease.
Leon met with both Pillai and Baker, who told her surgical removal was possible. Baker recommended to Leon’s previous doctor a one-time treatment called radiation embolization to reduce its size. "She was the only one in the world willing to operate on me and give me another chance at life," Leon said.
"We were hopeful that we could do this," Baker recounted. "I’ve operated often after liver-directed radiation therapy, and we know that if the liver and the tumor responded well to the treatment, the more likely it is for us to successfully remove the entire tumor."
In February 2017, Baker did an extended hepatectomy, a procedure to remove all of the football-sized tumor and more than 80% of the liver. This left about 20% of Leon’s liver to regenerate. The surgery was a success, and today Leon has close to 100% of her liver volume back and perfectly normal liver function.
Baker credits the effective approach to Leon’s care to the collaboration made possible through UChicago Medicine’s Liver Tumor Program. Hepatobiliary and transplant surgeons, medical liver specialists (called hepatologists), medical oncologists and interventional radiologists together offer personalized care pathways for patients. Additionally, the team can determine which liver cancer patients may potentially benefit from a liver transplant.
"This type of program is rare," Pillai said. "It’s how we should be treating many of these cancers – in a multidisciplinary fashion – and more centers are leaning towards it."
The program also has a research coordinator who can enroll patients in clinical trials and a tumor clinic nurse that helps patients navigate scheduling appointments. The navigators make sure the treatment plan goes into action, coordinate treatment and communication among physicians and act as the point person for the patient.
Two months after her surgery, in April 2017, Leon became engaged to Larry Leon, who was by her side before, during and after the procedure. In August 2018, the two were married. And this past summer, on June 30, their baby boy was born in an uncomplicated but carefully monitored pregnancy. The couple named him Baker.
"Dr. Baker saved my life and allowed me to have a second chance – to get married and start a family and move on," said Leon. "Baker is our miracle baby. We didn’t even know if I’d be able to get pregnant, and I’m forever grateful to Dr. Baker and her team and UChicago Medicine for taking on my case and allowing me to live."
At a follow-up appointment this past August, Nicole, who’s now approaching three years cancer-free, brought Baker in to meet his namesake and Pillai.
"I’m grateful that I was able to touch Nicole’s life," said Baker. "I’m touched and honored."
Liver Cancer Treatment
The UChicago Medicine Liver Tumor Program brings together specialists from our cancer and digestive disease programs to provide care for patients with primary liver cancer as well as bile duct cancer and benign tumors of the liver.Learn more about liver cancer care