Risky surgery for deadly cancers

April 8, 2010 3:21:09 PM PDT
Cancer is never an easy diagnosis to accept -- but when it spreads, the prognosis gets worse. Most patients whose cancer spreads throughout the stomach are given less than a year to live. There is a group of surgeons taking on what most consider impossible cases and performing a grueling surgery to save lives. It gave two terminal patients the will to live. Allen Perritt has a need for speed. He turned his passion into a career as a commercial pilot.

He was about to get in the cockpit for a 15-hour flight to China when he felt a pain in his side.

"We have an infirmary at the airport, and they examined me," Perritt said.

It turned out to be cancer which spread from his appendix to the membrane that lines the abdomen or peritoneum. Doctors say when this happens, the cancer ends up smothering all of the organs around the stomach.

"They closed me up and sent me home and said, 'We can't fix you, sir. Have a good day," Perritt said.

That's when he found Dr. Armando Sardi. Dr. Sardi performs a risky 12-hour operation to save those sent home by others to die.

"This is an operation and a treatment that has the potential for anything you can imagine, but the alternative is death," said Dr. Sardi, director of the Institute for Cancer Care at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

Surgeons make a 15-inch incision from the chest to the pelvis and remove as much of the tumor as possible in a procedure called cytoreduction.

"We start cleaning, organ by organ," Dr. Sardi said.

What they can't remove by hand -- they use chemo to kill. It's circulated through the abdomen for 90 minutes, then washed out.

"The heat alone kills cancer cells but also enhances the effect of chemotherapy," Dr. Sardi said.

It has been used to treat appendix, colon, gastric and ovarian cancers that have spread to the abdomen wall. In appendix cancer, the five-year survival rate is up to 80 percent with the surgery. With standard chemo, it's zero. Stage IV cancer patient Tracy Kyle went from a death sentence to a new life.

"To hear that I could be cured was like, I can do this," Kyle said. "I'm only 43 years old. I do have the rest of my life."

Perritt and Kyle say recovery is brutal -- up to two weeks in the hospital followed by two months of pain, nausea and chills at home.

"I was alive, that's the main thing," Perritt said. "I woke up."

A year and a half later, Perritt's cancer-free -- and relishing his second chance.

For colorectal cancer, Dr. Sardi says the invasive surgery has doubled the survival rate compared to chemotherapy alone. He has performed more than 100 surgeries and has had one patient die during the procedure.