Survivor Sunday: Cheers to Mike Leech

Guest Blog Post

A patient named Mike Leech came to our Foundation in 2016 needing support from our Patient Services program. A few weeks ago, he shared his story with guests at our 12th Annual Los Angeles Wine Dinner Auction & Celebration. We are honored to share his remarks here, and to help patients like him every day.

Cholangiocarcinoma is cancer of the extrahepatic bile ducts that drain from the liver. I have it.  And there’s no reason why I should still be here.  To understand my story, you need to know a little about cholangio.

The best thing is that it’s rare, 5-10 thousand cases a year.

It’s also aggressive.  Legendary NFL running back Walter Peyton was diagnosed in March 2004 and he died on November 1.  And that’s pretty typical.

Removing the cancer and replacing the bile ducts can extend average survival after diagnosis to three years.  Ten to fifteen percent of patients are candidates.  But even with the operation, no one with the cancer at my stage survived for five years in the largest study on the disease.

When I was diagnosed, two surgeons at top Philadelphia hospitals told me I wasn’t a candidate for the surgery. 

So the first treatment was chemotherapy.  Well, cholangio is also resistant to chemo.  It doesn’t do anything for most patients.  For some, it slows and even stops the growth for a time. 

Just before starting chemo, I called my good friend Lee Jay Berman.  Lee Jay’s been part of this dinner since it began.  I was looking for practical advice about getting ready for what lay ahead. His reaction was “Mike, I just don’t understand why we aren’t talking about a cure.” 

When I explained, he said, “Well, what’s the most advanced place for this cancer that’s close to you? We need to have them see you.”  That was Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York.  A second opinion on chemo might be helpful. “I think we can help,” he said.  “At the leading institutions where the T.J. Martell Foundation funds research, when the T.J. Martell Foundation calls the head of the hospital, they take the call.”

A few days later, thanks to Laura Heatherly, T.J. Martell Foundation’s CEO and Kate Fitzpatrick, Director of Communications and Patient Services, I was at Memorial Sloan Kettering.  Instead of an oncologist, I was face to face with the man who from my research is the leading surgeon in the world for this disease, William Jarnigan.  I wasn’t a candidate for the operation, he said, “but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that you can become a candidate.  If the chemotherapy works, you could become operable.”  That was a statistical long shot, but he was right.

After one round of chemo, the cancer stopped growing.  After two, it actually shrank.  He was able to do the operation.

Normally, this cancer comes back in 6 months to a year after the operation.  But it was over a year and a half later when mine did. It was in the spleen and in a hard to reach part of the liver. 

Nobody, and I mean nobody, ever has a second operation for bile duct cancer.  But Dr. Jarnigan took out the spleen and did what he could in the liver—followed by radiation.  That can completely destroy the remaining cancer in my liver.  We’ll know in six weeks.

Now, the cholangio is still in my blood stream.  It is going to get me.  But right now, I’m not on any treatment. And it’s been exactly four years since my diagnosis. 

Without Lee Jay and Laura and Kate, I wouldn’t be alive.  I don’t know whether research that the T.J. Martell Foundation funded played a role in my treatment.  I do I know that I’ve already had over three years more than I ever expected thanks to the T.J. Martell Foundation.  Time with my wife Kathy, who is here.  She’s been an incredible caregiver and support through four tough and scary years of treatments.  Time with my sons Jack and Neil, who were 6 and 10 but are now 10 and 14.  What a difference in our lives. I’m so grateful.

Cancer can happen to you or people you love and if it does, the T.J. Martell Foundation will be here to help.  Just as it’s helping save lives every day through research.  My story only happens if you stand up for all that the T.J. Martell Foundation does, which you’re about to get a chance to do. 

Then, hopefully, I’ll be back next year, having beaten all of the odds and gotten five years past diagnosis.

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