By the time Tom Dinwiddie walked into Wake Forest Baptist Health’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, he was a man on a mission with no time to lose.
Just 8½ months earlier, the 62-year-old had been diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer which had spread to his liver. He’d been given two months to live but was undergoing chemotherapy with an experimental drug. The treatment his doctors had called a “Hail Mary pass” was working. The cancer levels in his blood had come down to a normal range, but he still had liver and cancer tumors, which were worrisome.
Tom’s oncologist told him the only cure for this type of pancreatic cancer was surgery. Although he hated the idea, Tom reasoned he could live without a pancreas if he had to, but not without a liver. So, he began conducting his own research.
From a YouTube video, Tom tracked down Dr. Brian Kouri, an interventional radiologist at Wake Forest Baptist who was performing a procedure called radiofrequency ablation. In it, he used high-frequency electrical currents to destroy cancer cells in the liver.
Once the two met, Dr. Kouri vetoed the radio-wave procedure to remove the liver tumors and suggested surgery. Tom explained that he had already spoken to surgeons who had refused to operate. Dr. Kouri asked, “Yes, but have you spoken with Wake Forest Baptist’s surgeons?” Tom had to admit he hadn’t.
Dr. Kouri set up an appointment for Tom with Dr. Clancy Clark, a pancreas and liver surgeon. After reviewing Tom’s records and conducting an exam, Dr. Clark agreed to perform both the liver and pancreas resections. Tom was thrilled but explained he had two requests.
The first was to do the surgery while keeping intact his pylorus and pyloric sphincter—two parts of the stomach that are crucial to normal eating. Dr. Clark agreed.
The second request involved Tom’s pancreatic tumor. Although he needed both his liver and pancreas operated on, two surgeries would mean too much time away from his chemotherapy and were out of the question.
Dr. Clark consulted with Dr. Perry Shen, also a liver and pancreatic surgical specialist at Wake Forest Baptist. Both doctors, listed among U.S. News World Report’s “Best Doctors,” collaborate on complex cases to find the best surgical approach for patients. After careful review of Dinwiddie’s surgical requirements, Drs. Clark and Shen agreed to together perform one long surgery instead of two.
Their team approach included removing the right side of Tom’s liver and performing a Whipple procedure, in which the head of the pancreas is removed. The extensive surgery removed the tumor, which his earlier chemotherapy had shrunk, and preserved Tom’s pylorus.
The 10-hour surgery was performed in January 2013, and Tom has been cancer-free since. He eats normally, rides his bike every chance he gets and greatly enjoys life with his wife, Diane, and their rescue pup, Sandy. And much to Tom’s shock and eternal delight, his liver grew back! It’s the only human organ that can regenerate.
Today, the pylorus-preserving Whipple procedure Tom requested has become the standard of multidisciplinary, team-based care at Wake Forest Baptist, which is a high-volume center for pancreatic and liver surgery that is accredited by the National Pancreas Foundation for pancreatic cancer. It is nationally ranked in the top 10% of best cancer hospitals in the country and the only NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in the region.
Tom is grateful for his surgeons, who honored his resourcefulness and tenacity and worked with him on an innovative—and successful—solution.
“These talented doctors were willing to hear me out and give my idea a try,” he says. “For that, I’ll forever be in their debt.”