My Knight Cancer Story: Deborah Hansen

The perfect partnership

Deborah Hansen had pain in her right side for years. Her doctor ordered bloodwork and X-rays but found nothing unusual. A fibromyalgia sufferer, Deborah says her pain was dismissed as just another symptom of that disease.

Somewhere deep inside, Deborah knew something was not right. Her toy poodle, Maurice, seemed to agree. “Maurice is always with my husband,” Deborah explains. “But suddenly, he wouldn’t leave me alone. He sat with me, slept with me, wouldn’t leave my side. When I walked to the bathroom, Maurice would wait outside the door. He was always there.”

At Deborah’s insistence, her primary care physician ordered a CAT scan and suddenly everything changed. The doctor explained the results showed Deborah’s liver "was in bad shape." Deborah had liver cancer.

Enter Salem Cancer Center oncologist Dr. John Strother. Dr. Strother knew Dr. Kevin Billingsley, Division Chief of Surgical Oncology at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. A partnership between the Salem Cancer Center and OHSU made it easier for Dr. Strother to refer Deborah’s case to Dr. Billingsley, but Dr. Strother knew his friend was the best pick for the job anyway. “Liver surgery is by no means easy,” he says, “so you really need someone at an academic medical center who has performed this surgery many times and has expertise with these types of things.”

“He gave me hope,” says Deborah of Dr. Strother. Dr. Billingsley “made me feel so much better, too. He said there was a mass in my liver, and he wanted to go in there and see what he could get out.” Deborah’s husband and daughters had a lot of questions. “The nurses and doctors at OHSU answered each one as best they could. Everyone was so patient and nice to us.”

Dr. Billingsley acknowledges liver cancer can be an unforgiving disease, but he’s quick to point out that’s not true for every case. “Often we can do more than patients think we can,” he says. “This is another reason why OHSU’s partnership with Salem Hospital is so great. Here’s John Strother who has great access to OHSU, he knows me, and he knows realistically what I can do. He has a good sense of what’s in the range of possibility. He often will send me films or call me about a patient that’s may be a candidate for surgery, and that’s a great service that we offer patients. And patients in Salem don’t always have to come to Portland – they can get the advantage of OHSU expertise without necessarily of going through a full, formal consultation at our campus.”

Eight days after surgery, Deborah went home, radiation and chemo still to come. “I’m not really sure about the future, “she says, “and I’m still a little scared. Nobody knows where this came from, but if people get the right doctors who know what they’re doing, then that’s all they need. It can be done. You can get through this.”

Maurice the toy poodle is no longer glued to Deborah’s side, which she finds encouraging. Perhaps he senses there’s nothing to worry about.