Colon cancer

Kayla receives liver from living donor, Morgan, to combat colorectal cancer

Two women standing next to each other and smiling
Morgan and Kayla

As a pharmacist at an oncology practice, Kayla Love has watched countless people battle tough-to-beat cancers.

So, when she was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in December 2019, and later found out it had spread to her liver, the mom of two from Fayetteville, Arkansas, knew the situation was life-threatening.

After successful rounds of chemotherapy, Kayla, 39, researched possibilities for further treatment and ended up more than 700 miles away from home at the UW Health Transplant Center in Madison, Wisconsin. There, she received a living donor liver transplant from a good friend and stopped the disease in its tracks.

“I knew what my path was,” she said. “My alternative was to undergo chemotherapy treatments for the rest of my life, so I decided to see how a liver transplant would work for me.”

Transplant as a cancer treatment

Just a month after Kayla’s cancer diagnosis, she learned the cancer had metastasized to her liver. She underwent chemotherapy for two years, but there was still cancer evident on her tests. That’s when she found out the UW Health Liver Transplant Program studies live donor liver transplantation in the treatment of metastatic cancer to the liver.

“When you have a cancer that has spread to the liver, often it’s impossible to just remove the cancerous portion,” said Dr. Sam Lubner, a medical oncologist at UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center. “So, you’re limited to just using chemotherapy as a treatment. However, the five-year survival rate for metastatic colorectal cancer is just 8-12% for patients who are treated with only chemotherapy. We’re always looking for new ways to move the needle on that.”

A liver transplant is one of those “new ways”—although it’s so new that there are few studies proving its effectiveness, which means that a cancer patient would have a difficult time receiving a new liver from a deceased donor because of how the wait list is prioritized.

A friend offers the gift of life

Kayla had known about the possibility of a living liver transplant since she was first diagnosed with cancer, and mentioned it jokingly to her friend Morgan Clayton. Morgan’s own mother had recently passed away from colorectal cancer, and she had been treated at the clinic where Kayla worked.

Later, when Kayla mentioned to Morgan that she had reached out to Dr. David Al-Adra, a transplant surgeon at the UW Health Transplant Center, Morgan promptly submitted an application to be a living liver donor. “At first I was thinking, what if I’m not good enough to be a donor?” said Morgan. “But I have an excellent support system. They said, ‘All you can do is try. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.’”

Both Morgan and Kayla underwent their evaluations at UW Health in late 2022 and early 2023. Dr. Al-Adra said that Kayla was a perfect candidate for a liver transplant to treat her cancer. “She was young and otherwise very healthy,” he said. “One other important part of this was that her disease was responding to chemotherapy.”

Patient selection is a crucial part of using transplant as a treatment for metastatic colorectal cancer, said Dr. Lubner.

“We recently transplanted our 20,000th organ,” said Dr. Lubner. “When it comes to transplant expertise and patient selection, our program measures up favorably to any place around the world.”

Two successful surgeries

Kayla and Morgan both underwent their surgeries at University Hospital in Madison on May 10, 2023. Although Morgan experienced a bile leak that required drainage, she quickly recovered.

Kayla had to undergo an additional surgery to fix a complication before she was able to leave the hospital. But in her opinion, it’s all been worth it—her imaging scans have showed no signs of disease.

“It’s been really great, not having to worry about feeling sick and rundown and not able to do things,” said Kayla, who not only works full time, but also spends most of her free time driving her children to cheerleading competitions and travel baseball games.

As for Morgan—after losing her mom to cancer, she’s grateful she has been able to save a friend from the same fate. “I would go through it again, because I would never want to see my friend’s kids not have a mom,” she said.