My good friend, Lee Jay Berman, invited me to the wine-tasting dinner, which I was unable to attend, but he had explained the foundation’s mission. When I received my diagnosis not long afterwards, he was one of the first people I called. He alerted me to the T.J. Martell Foundation’s Patient Services program, or as he put it, “My friend Laura is CEO at T.J. Martell, and when she calls the administrator of a facility, they drop everything to take her call. She can really open doors. It has made a difference for other friends of mine. She sees it as another kind of mission for the foundation.”
My diagnosis was a rare but aggressive one, cholangiocarcinoma—cancer of the bile ducts leading out of the liver. Two experienced surgeons in the field told me point blank that I wasn’t a candidate for surgery, which is the only thing that holds out hope of survival past a year or two. Palliative care (chemo and radiation) was my only option.
I had been in touch with Memorial Sloan Kettering about getting a second (actually, third) opinion, specifically with one of their oncologists, since I was satisfied that surgery wasn’t possible. After Laura’s call, I quickly got an appointment. To my surprise, it was with a surgeon, one of the most distinguished surgeons for GI cancers in the world. He told me that while I should start chemotherapy, I should not rule out the possibility of surgery later on. I had an unusually good response to the chemo, and six months later he performed a resection operation. Tests showed zero cancer at the margins, which holds out the possibility that I have been cured.
Perhaps I might have gotten that appointment without the referral. But perhaps not. MSK‘s policy was not to see someone like me at all once chemotherapy began, which was imminent. The appointment was literally on three hours’ notice. Without that appointment, I would have had chemo and radiation—and likely never have known surgery was an option.
How did the referral help me? Possibly the difference between life or death. At a minimum, as things turned out, it likely added years to my life.
There are many foundations fighting the battle against cancer. T.J. Martell is focused on funding innovative research at top institutions pushing for real breakthroughs. That’s the melody. The human side of the foundation adds a harmony of personal kindness, reaching out to those stricken by cancer to make breakthroughs at an individual level possible. Of that, I’m living proof.
Editor’s note: This patient has asked to remain anonymous, and we of course respect his wishes.