Extending Jon’s Life

Interventional radiology procedures give liver cancer patients hope and time

Jon Rydholm with his wife, Kathleen, and family.In 2013, Jon Rydholm was diagnosed with liver cancer and received a grim prognosis: He was given six months to live.

Since then, the retired Weston, Missouri, resident has celebrated three birthdays, four wedding anniversaries and witnessed the birth of two grandchildren, Jon Merton, 4, and Eleanor, 4 months.

“I’m a miracle,” said Jon, 68, who also had colon cancer unrelated to his liver cancer.

He attributes his survival to the care he has received at The University of Kansas Cancer Center, a special diet and herbs, and his faith.

“With Jon’s hard work and our procedures, we have kept his cancer under control for the past four years, most importantly, with great quality of life,” said Thomas Fahrbach, MD, an interventional radiologist at The University of Kansas Health System.

The health system operates the largest interventional radiology program (by patient volume) in the nation. Like Jon, many interventional radiology patients have liver cancer.

“A diseased liver is the biggest threat to a patient’s overall survival. It’s the battleground, so it’s where we focus our weaponry,” Dr. Fahrbach said. “If we can control the tumor burden in the liver, we manage liver failure.”

Targeting only the tumors

The interventional radiology weaponry to which Dr. Fahrbach refers is transarterial chemoembolization (TACE), Y-90 radiation and microwave ablation.

“These technologies zero in on the tumor itself while sparing the remainder of the patient’s liver and body from systemic side effects,” Dr. Fahrbach said. “All three are administered internally with just a needle puncture. There are no incisions and no stitches.”

Jon continues to receive TACE and microwave ablation as necessary.

In the TACE procedure, Dr. Fahrbach snakes a catheter – the size of angel hair pasta – into the patient’s liver and maps the blood vessels supplying the tumors. In subsequent procedures, an even smaller micro catheter carries tiny spheres of chemotherapy (or Y-90 radiation) into the mapped blood vessels to kill the tumors.

In microwave ablation, Dr. Fahrbach uses computed tomography (CT) to safely guide thermal energy to heat and kill each tumor.

After eight TACE and five microwave ablation procedures, nearly all of Jon’s liver cancer has been destroyed. He is now able to envision a future with his wife, Kathleen, in Weston, Missouri.

Because their large home is a lot for the retirees to care for, the Rydholms are considering their options.

“We are talking about downsizing,” Jon said.

Ease of treatment

Interventional radiology is a welcome treatment for many colorectal cancer patients who have liver metastases and who may have exhausted other treatment options.

“The medical oncologist may have to say ‘no’ because no other chemo has worked. The surgical oncologist may have to say ‘no’ because they can’t resect the tumors,” Dr. Fahrbach said. “We get to be the ‘yes’ doctors.”

Interventional radiology procedures are experiencing a surge in use across the nation.

“Technology advances, clinical studies and wide application contribute to the expanding application of interventional radiology in cancer treatment,” Dr. Fahrbach said.

Interventional radiology procedures also have proven effective on melanoma, pancreatic cancer, neuroendocrine cancer, kidney cancer, breast cancer, bone cancer and lung cancer.

Equally important is the procedures’ emphasis on patient comfort. Painless and well-tolerated, TACE, Y-90 and microwave ablation are outpatient procedures- performed while patients are under conscious sedation. Patients return home with no recovery time and no major side effects.

Today, Jon enjoys a quality of life he never thought possible after his terminal diagnosis.

“I’m pretty lucky,” he said.

Making cancer a chronic disease

“The key to more success stories like Jon’s is integrating interventional radiology therapies with other complementary cancer therapies and administering them earlier in the treatment regimen,” Dr. Fahrbach said. “Together, they have improved outcomes more than using each therapy alone.”

Interventional radiology procedures are, and can only be successful with, the expertise of a multidisciplinary cancer team such as the team at The University of Kansas Health System.

In fact, the team approach is one of the things Jon values most. 

“My doctors meet once a week to discuss my case,” he said. “It’s like the entire health system is working for my benefit.” 

“What we’re trying to do is turn cancer into a chronic disease process,” Dr. Fahrbach said. “If we can control the cancer and keep a close eye on it, patients like Jon can live longer and enjoy an improved quality of life.”

For Jon, being referred to The University of Kansas Cancer Center was a pivotal moment in his cancer journey. 

“They said this was the best place to go for cancer,” he said. “And, it is.” 

As with all treatments, individual patient results vary. It is important to discuss your treatment options with your healthcare provider.