Spotlight: Shelly Casey
Shelly Casey has heard some shocking things from physicians, starting when she was given a diagnosis of stage 4 colon cancer at age 39.
Almost 8 years later, the Stevens Point teacher heard some different stunning news from her surgical oncologist, Dr. Sharon Weber of the UW Carbone Cancer Center: Go home; you're done with your regular scans. Your cancer is cured.
"I was really caught off-guard," says Casey, on learning that her regular checkups with Dr. Weber in Madison were at an end. "I thought we'd be growing old together."
The fact that Casey will be growing older seemed unlikely when she came to Madison for a second opinion after her doctors in northern Wisconsin said she had 22 months of life, and that there was nothing she could do beyond comfort care.
Before: Even though she was given a grim diagnosis, Shelly Casey, wanted to fight because her children were so young. Here she is just after liver ablation surgery at UW Hospital with daughters Shea, left, and Quinn. Son Cade, who was 4 at the time, is not shown.
After: The Casey family says goodbye to Dr. Sharon Weber after having Shelly declared cancer free. From left to right, Quinn, husband Brian, Shelly, Dr. Weber, Shea and Cade.
Casey's cancer journey began in August 2008. At the time, she and her husband, Brian, had traveled from their former home in Tomahawk to their hometown of Madison, to celebrate their middle child's 8th birthday with the grandparents.
"I had a pain in my back that got worse and worse, and so I went to urgent care," she recalled.
The physicians there ordered a scan, and she got the results via cell phone while she and her husband sat in a hospital waiting room. She heard that they suspected colon cancer, and that it looked like it had spread to her liver.
Back home in northern Wisconsin, she had a colonoscopy, which confirmed the diagnosis, and then had surgery to remove the tumor and affected lymph nodes, and to put in a port to begin chemotherapy. Nothing, it seemed, could be done for her liver.
"I asked him, 'Can't you do more? I have three kids at home,'" Casey said, adding that her youngest was 5. "He said, 'No, there isn't anything more we can do. We can keep you comfortable.'"
Fortunately, Brian Casey reached out to Meg Gaines, a University of Wisconsin-Madison law professor who runs the Center for Patient Partnerships. Gaines helped them get a referral to the UW Carbone Cancer Center, and there they met with Weber, medical oncologist Dr. Kyle Holen, and other members of the team.
A biopsy showed that the cancer was contained on one side of the liver, so Casey's UW Carbone team met to discuss her case. Casey says that Weber told her that her colon cancer had also spread to lymph nodes near her heart, and that they may be able to get it all during a procedure called a liver ablation and lymph node removal.
"She told me that there was only about a 2 percent chance the cancer wouldn't come back, but that if I wanted to do the surgery, she would schedule it," Casey said. Casey said that a 2 percent chance sounded way better than no chance at all of living to see her three children grow up.
So she had surgery in March 2009 – Dr. Weber removed the affected lymph nodes and Dr. Louis Hinshaw performed a liver ablation - and finished her round of chemotherapy. She also met with an integrative health physician, who helped her begin meditating and taking supplements that helped her deal with the effects of the chemotherapy.
"There is nothing like that available in the Northwoods. It was the whole team approach that helped me," she says. "I began eating better and juicing and meditating."
By the end of summer, she was feeling well enough to resume teaching reading to elementary school children and so went back to work that September.
The months and years that followed were full of return visits to Madison, for scans and checkups that were every three months, then every six months, then yearly. Finally, Dr. Weber told her she didn't need to keep coming back.
It was a bittersweet moment.
"I really cannot say enough good things about Dr. Weber," Casey says. "She was willing to take a chance on me, and without her, I would not be here."
Weber says people who are hit with a dire diagnosis need to hear this story.
"She would absolutely not be with us if she had not come here for a second opinion," Weber says. "The message to patients is: Keep trying, don't give up, seek out doctors that you have faith in. This is an amazing story of hope, and a great testament to a personalized treatment plan made by a team of cancer doctors."