Sharing A Miracle: The Nancy Hamm Story
“Giving you a transplant would only be torture and then you’d die.”
With those words, Nancy Hamm, a vibrant 60-year old retiree from Cincinnati, Ohio, learned her life was over. Recently diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), better known as primary liver cancer, she’d turned to transplant experts at a university hospital in nearby Indiana, hoping she’d be given a new, healthy liver. Instead, she received a death sentence.
“When the doctors said there was nothing that could be done, I was astonished,” recalls Nancy, a vivacious brunette with a radiant smile. “How could I possibly be facing terminal cancer, when I felt absolutely fine?”
Nancy, who felt well, appeared healthy, and had no major symptoms was shocked at the diagnosis and worried what would become of her life.
A Happy Life Interrupted
Retired after a successful 31-year career in research and development, Nancy and husband, Clint, were enjoying an early retirement. Together, they actively pursued a wide variety of hobbies and shared interests. An avid golfer, she could often be found on the links, improving her game. The couple vacationed frequently with their children, Keith and Kevin, and six grandchildren, as well. With an enthusiastic love of genealogy, Nancy and Clint also spent months tracing the family’s extensive history back to the early 1800’s. The couple cherished the peaceful, happy life they’d worked hard to build.
In August 2006, all of that changed on what should’ve been a day of celebration: her 59th birthday. In place of candles on a cake and ribbon-wrapped birthday presents, Nancy received an unwelcome gift – she was diagnosed with primary liver cancer. One of the few cancers still on the rise in the U.S. and the third leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide, primary liver cancer is a swift and lethal disease whose 5-year survival rates remain devastatingly low. And she suddenly found herself in a highly exclusive club: she was one of only an estimated 5 percent of the population that develops liver cancer without first having been diagnosed with some other contributing health condition, such as Hepatitis C or cirrhosis.
In the months leading up to their visit with the transplant team, Nancy and Clint, searched desperately for anything that would give them hope. Shortly after diagnosis, her oncologist recommended she undergo laparoscopic resection surgery. Doctors hoped that the laparoscopy, an advanced procedure enabling surgeons to inspect and remove diseased tissue through smaller, less-invasive incisions in the body, would render Nancy cancer-free. The procedure revealed an advanced state of cancer in the form of a large 8.8cm tumor on her liver.
“It Was a Rollercoaster of Hope and Despair”
After surgery, Nancy recuperated at home with loving support from Clint and son, Kevin. The family tried to remain upbeat and optimistic but knew the clock was ticking. Meanwhile, Nancy’s older son, Keith, scoured the Internet for any information he could find on liver cancer treatments. Nancy recalls him putting in endless hours on the computer looking for anything that would give the family hope.
“Keith has always loved the Internet and he’s really the one that did the bulk of the online research work,” she says. “He was relentless in his push to find answers and information about new treatments. He’s truly an inspiration to me; Keith wouldn’t let me give up because there were so many new treatment options out there.”
Several months after surgery, Nancy’s oncologist delivered the news the family had been praying would never come – her cancer had returned with a vengeance. The grim diagnosis sparked a whirlwind journey that would take her halfway across the country and back again, beginning with a visit to the Lone Star State.
On her oncologist’s advice, Nancy and Clint traveled to the M .D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas where she joined a clinical trial of an experimental chemotherapy regimen showing promise in cancer patients. It was the smallest glimmer of hope, but it was enough. After receiving the experimental treatment, Nancy’s tumors regressed slightly, but it wasn’t the dramatic turnaround they’d hoped for. And then came stunning news from her doctors.
“They told me there was nothing more that could be done and if I was lucky, I had seven more months to live. Seven months…we were devastated,” says Nancy. “It was like being on a rollercoaster of hope and despair, but we never gave up.”
A surprise awaited the couple upon their return home. While they were away, Keith had discovered what appeared to be a “magic bullet” for certain primary liver cancer patients. It seemed too good to be true, but unwilling to leave any option unexplored, Keith began researching TheraSphere?, an innovative micro-brachytherapy treatment.
A Miracle Emerges
Keith’s investigation led him to Dr. Robert Martin, an award-winning surgical oncologist and associate professor in the Department of Surgery in the Division of Surgical Oncology at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. With a hope and a prayer, Keith called Dr. Martin’s office at the University.
“Dr. Martin and his assistant, Susan Ellis, are the most wonderful, informed, and caring people I’ve met. They were willing to do whatever it took to get me well again. We were so glad to have found people, and a treatment that gave us any hope at all. I honestly thought I was a goner,” Nancy says with a chuckle.
Speaking with Susan, Keith explained the situation’s urgency, describing their desperate search for any treatment that might prolong, if not spare, Nancy’s life. The conversation proved to be the turning point – Susan felt Nancy would benefit from TheraSphere and asked Dr. Martin to speak with her directly. As Nancy shared details of her condition and prior treatments with Dr. Martin, he was convinced she should be allowed to try TheraSphere. It was a longshot but it was the only one the family had.
A pre-treatment CT scan reinforced Dr. Martin’s opinion that Nancy was a suitable TheraSphere candidate; he also recognized that the innovative treatment was likely her last hope for survival. Nancy, who Dr. Martin calls “one of my biggest success stories”, was finally given the green light to receive the innovative treatment at the University of Louisville Hospital.
Big Hopes in a Small Package
TheraSphere is among the new generation of “smart” treatments – precisely targeted therapies packing a powerful blow to harmful cells while leaving health tissues and organs minimally affected. A micro-brachytherapy, TheraSphere harnesses the power of cutting-edge nuclear-based microtechnology by deploying millions of tiny Yttrium-90-based glass microspheres through a small catheter inserted in the hepatic artery. A safe, highly targeted therapy, the beads are delivered to and destroy cancerous cells with only minor impact on surrounding tissues. TheraSphere is usually administered in an outpatient setting and requires less anesthesia than other treatments.
Regaining her happy, active life was tremendously important to Nancy. Unlike chemotherapy and other conventional treatments that carry debilitating side effects such as pain, nausea, fever, and vomiting, TheraSphere’s known side effects are fewer and shorter-lived. The more the family learned about the treatment, the better it seemed.
“It was really the only hope we had,” Nancy says. “So even though all of the other doctors told us there was nothing more we could do, we decided to go for it.”
Under the watchful eye of Dr. Martin and a multi-disciplinary nuclear medicine team, in February 2006 Nancy received a single TheraSphere treatment for 16 different cancerous lesions on the right lobe of her liver. She calls the experience “a breeze.”
“There was no discomfort whatsoever during the TheraSphere treatment and the anesthesia they gave me was lighter than what I’d had for the other procedures I’d been through. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
Best of all, the few side effects Nancy experienced were both minor and short-lived. She felt so well, she was able to relax and enjoy the two-hour return drive to Cincinnati with Clint on the same day she’d been treated. And then, she made good on her wish to return quickly to her pre-cancer life.
“Three days after getting home, I went to a Superbowl party!” Nancy laughs.
The Waiting Game
Dr. Martin also felt Nancy would soon be ready for a transplant, therefore, with his urging, the family began applying to transplant centers across the Midwest. But at every turn, Nancy was denied, and even received the shocking opinion that transplantation would do nothing but put her through needless pain before her inevitable death. Each evaluation and subsequent refusal cost precious days, turning the process into a waiting game the family feared they would lose.
“It was unreal,” she says, shaking her head.
With rejection after rejection piling up, a discouraged Nancy persevered with the help of her family, Dr. Martin, and Susan Ellis. Her church congregation rallied behind her, hosting two well-attended healing services on her behalf. Then, Keith made a fateful call to University Hospital in Cincinnati, where he found transplant surgeon, Dr. Steven Rudich. Dr. Rudich agreed to evaluate Nancy fully, and ordered a new CT scan and laparoscopy to assess her condition. But the scan revealed a hidden surprise: no laparoscopy was needed because the radiologist could see no signs of cancer remaining in her liver. Dr. Rudich immediately began transplant compatibility testing and approvals.
“It was nothing short of a miracle,” Nancy says of finally being placed on the Cincinnati University Hospital transplant list in September of 2007. After eight days on the list, Nancy and family rushed to the hospital – she’d been designated as a back-up candidate for a healthy liver that had just become available. If the primary candidate couldn’t undergo surgery, she would be given the transplant.
“It was truly nerve-wracking; you have to do all of the pre-surgical preparation, even if you’re the back-up recipient and that’s very stressful,” she recalls.
But it wasn’t to be – the transplant went to the primary recipient, and Nancy was sent home. Eleven days later, the long-awaited call came in: a new liver was on its way to the transplant center and she was the primary recipient. Again, the family raced to the hospital, praying that their luck would hold. Finally, it did.
One year and 47 days after her diagnosis, Nancy received a priceless birthday gift: a second chance at life. The transplant was a success and when tested, her extracted liver showed less than one centimeter of residual cancer remaining. After recovering from surgery, Nancy returned home to the cheers of family, friends, and the tireless physicians who’d stood by her side.
In the year since her TheraSphere treatment and liver transplant, Nancy has been healthy and disease-free. The family has resumed their happy, active life, including a recent Florida vacation and a family trip to Bermuda. Nancy remains optimistic and grateful to those who helped her during her race against time.
“My husband Clint was by my side through every appointment, test, treatment, surgery, and as I recuperated; I could not have done this without his love and patience. In addition there was an endless outpouring of love and prayers from all directions. The bottom line is that you must be your own best advocate to beat this disease, and you need the support of family, friends, and informed physicians. My survival came from a combination of determination, prayer and medical science; that I’m alive today is a miracle, and that miracle should be shared.”