When 30-year-old Cait Teelak and her husband, Mike, traveled to Cait’s hometown in southern Illinois for Thanksgiving in 2015, she thought the right side pain she felt was simply from the fast food they’d eaten along the trip. Worst case scenario, appendicitis or gall bladder issues came to mind. When the pain worsened, she eventually ended up at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis with a rare diagnosis: cholangiocarcinoma, or bile duct cancer, which is considered a type of liver cancer.
Cholangiocarcinoma is not common in the U.S. Only about 2,000 to 3,000 people are diagnosed with the disease each year. Cait’s tumor, about the size of a grapefruit, took up about 83 percent of her liver.
Doctors at Barnes Hospital had wanted Cait to stay in St. Louis for treatment, but she hoped to return to western New York – specifically, to their home in Little Valley, near Ellicottville. When Cait mentioned where she lived, she says her doctor’s face lit up.
“He said, ‘the former head of our department moved up there about a year ago, to Rochester,’” Cait recalls. “He said ‘his name is Dr. Linehan. If there's anybody in the world I could send you to for this, it's him.’”
After returning to New York, Cait and Mike met with Linehan, Chief of Surgery at the University of Rochester Medical Center and director of Clinical Operations at Wilmot. The tumor was too large to take out, so they did a portal vein embolization, which cuts off blood supply to the tumor in hopes of shrinking it to make surgery possible. Cait also saw Aram Hezel, M.D., and completed four rounds of chemotherapy starting in December 2015.
Scans in mid-January showed good news and bad news: the original tumor had shrunk enough to make surgery possible, but they noticed two other tumors on the right lobe of her liver. Despite this, she still scheduled surgery for February 2016, which would at minimum buy her more time. She remembers going ice skating with family and friends the Sunday before surgery.
“It was very surreal sitting there thinking, ‘I feel so good right now and on Tuesday I'm going to have most of my liver removed.’ It was very bizarre, a Twilight Zone moment,” she says.
During the three-hour surgery, Linehan took out almost 80 percent of her liver and her gallbladder. Thankfully, she had clear margins and no lymph involvement; however, there was some vascular invasion, meaning the cancer was in her blood vessels and may have been the start of it moving to other places in the body. She stayed at Wilmot for eight days before returning home to continue recovery with support from Mike and her dogs, who she says never left her side.
After recovering, she began another round of chemotherapy. Every six weeks, she has to check her tumor marker through a blood test. She has a scan every three months. Her most recent scan shows a spot on her lung grew, but she’s not letting that change her momentum: The couple has been renovating their home, fostering dogs and soon they hope to become foster parents. She’s also gotten involved with the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation, writing for their blog and volunteering in other ways.
The uncertainty has been challenging for the young couple, but Cait says she feels fortunate for the care Wilmot has provided.
"I have felt very invested in by my entire team, from my oncologist team to Dr. Linehan and his surgical team, even the infusion nurses were so warm and kind,” she says. “I felt very human through this process and I was very, very grateful for all that.”