From Canyon To Cove: Medical odyssey continues

June 16, 2011|By Cindy Frazier,

Editor's Note: This is the second of two parts.


After getting home from UC Irvine's gastrointestinal clinic, we cried, each blaming ourselves for causing what would surely be a life-changing illness.

I called my sister Libby, a breast cancer survivor and the only person I knew who could truly understand. I also called Coastline Pilot reporter Barbara Diamond to tell her I wouldn't be coming back to work any time soon — if ever — and that I would miss working with her.


Now I knew what the doctors knew — and why their faces were so grim.

I spent a week recovering from the endoscopy, which had also included multiple biopsies, numerous little snips at my organs. I managed to survive on a mostly liquid diet since I couldn't eat solid food. I called the doctor's office several times, but never heard back. By the end of the week, I was beginning to think I would have to somehow find a surgeon on my own.

Finally, on a Friday, the phone rang. A pleasant woman informed me that Dr. Sean Cao had been assigned to my case and asked if I could come in for an appointment on Monday. She told me that Dr. Cao was a pancreatic cancer expert and had performed many of these surgeries. I felt as if "big hands" had descended from heaven to pick me up in my hour of desperation.

I met with Cao in Fountain Valley. He was tall, nice-looking, with a gentle demeanor, but blunt and no-nonsense. He showed me a diagram of the liver and pancreas; he seemed to think I wasn't taking my situation seriously.

"You don't understand," he said more than once.

When he found out that the UCI surgeons had inserted a metal stent he was visibly upset; this meant, he said, that my cancer was inoperable. I told him what Dr. Lee had said: There was a small stomach tumor, there were biopsies, there was no decision that the condition couldn't be operated on.

But still there was the metal stent, which my partner Sharon clearly remembered as being described by Lee as "like chicken wire." Metal, not plastic; this was a sign to Cao that things had progressed too far. Plastic could be removed; metal could not. He frowned, shook his head, and left the room.

In a panic, I finally found Lee's phone number on a scribbled paper somewhere in my purse. Cao took it away to phone UCI. He returned noticeably calmer; the tiny metal stent was used because of the difficulty of the procedure and the smallness of the area, not because the condition was inoperable.

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