Cancer is a disease that no one is fully exempt from; it attacks women, men, children, rich, poor, young, and old. When an individual is diagnosed, their world changes dramatically. Literally overnight, their priorities realign and life becomes a roller coaster with unknown twists, turns, highs, and lows. Tiffany Schwantes, a healthy 30-year-old mother and wife, received her unexpected diagnosis in October of 2011. She had very few symptoms and little warning. She was experiencing irregular weight loss and random pains in her side. After several weeks, she knew something wasn’t right. Tiffany went to the emergency room for testing. It was during this visit that she was diagnosed with cancer and immediately hospitalized for a week. During her week of hospitalization, she went through rigorous testing. She was then sent home to await biopsy results.
Within one week following her hospital stay, Tiffany was given results and grave details regarding the severity of her condition. She was diagnosed with a very rare stage- four liver cancer called Cholangiocarcinoma. Because of the advancement of the cancer, she was informed that chemotherapy would not be an option for a cure. The chemotherapy treatment plan, at best, would prolong the quality and length of her life. She was advised to seek treatment immediately at one of the world’s leading Cancer centers, MD Anderson in Houston, Texas. The news was devastating, shocking, and initially very hard to process.
The first few weeks after diagnosis were absolutely overwhelming. Doctors appointments, numerous tests, and complicated travel plans for treatment consumed every waking hour. Tiffany struggled with how to explain to their children what was going on in a way that was accurate, but would refrain from needlessly scaring them. She had to navigate the questions of “How?” and “Why?” this happened to her. She was overwhelmed with feelings of desperation and hopelessness. Despite her fear, Tiffany was realistic about the prognosis.
“I am going to fight this as long as I can for my family, but it will eventually kill me.”
In mid-November, less than one month after the diagnosis, Tiffany and her husband Brian went on their first ever plane ride to Texas. At MD Anderson, they met Dr. Miliand Javie, the oncologist who would assume primary responsibility for her care. He gave her an aggressive bi-monthly chemotherapy plan and told her they would have to wait and see how the cancer reacted to treatment. For the next year, Tiffany spent every week in and out of Clearview Cancer Institute in her hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, doing routine blood testing and regular chemo sessions. Quarterly, she flew to MD Anderson for three days of consecutive appointments to see specialists, complete scans, and regulate the overall effectiveness of the prescribed plan. The side effects of chemo were difficult. Tiffany struggled with fatigue and felt unsure that she would make it from week to week. Tiffany recalls the hardest part was that she knew the chemotherapy would not cure her. The pain, suffering, irritability, and exhaustion was simply a band aid to an illness she was told would end her life.
Facts and doctor’s prognosis aside, Tiffany pressed on. During this grueling period of treatment, she was always conscious of her attitude. She believed her suffering could be used to share the hope of the Gospel. “If people could see my attitude — still hopeful, thankful, and worshipping God in the midst of my pain and suffering — it would point people to the cross,” Tiffany said. She strove to maintain an eternal perspective. At times she was fearful, but she chose to rest and believe that her life was in the hands of an almighty and sovereign God. She believed God would take care of her family if the worst happened and desperately tried to focus on the days immediately ahead.
Due to the side effects of her daily medications, she could not drive a car; yet she was surrounded by friends who took her to church, doctors’ appointments, and on necessary errands. Local families often brought meals on chemo days to help make her everyday life more manageable and feel normal. The community participated in fundraisers to help cover cancer-related travel bills and hundreds prayed faithfully every day. One day, Tiffany went to her mailbox and was surprised to find over 200 cards from her birth city of Boaz, Alabama. A local ministry had coordinated a mail mob of cards, each with a two dollar bill and personal thoughts, encouragement, and bible verses. She was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of these gestures from people she didn’t even know! Over and over again, God reminded her in tangible ways that He was not only her Life Sustainer, but also her Provider and Comforter.
A Glimpse of Hope
In August of 2012, the doctors at MD Anderson gave Tiffany the first glimpse of hope for healing when they began to run tests to see if she would be eligible for a transplant. The majority of patients with Tiffany’s type of cancer are not eligible for transplant, but because of her young age and her body’s receptive response to a long duration of chemo, they referred her to the Houston Methodist Hospital organ list. The exact waiting period was unknown, but it was estimated to be two years or more due to allocation rules. Her situation didn’t look hopeful because her liver was not sick enough for her to be chosen from the normal donor pool. Patients are chosen from their degree of illnesses, so she was moved to the bottom of the wait list. The heartbreaking reality of a prolonged wait could prove to be fatal. She was informed that the cancer may spread or that she might not be healthy enough to get a transplant when the time came. So Tiffany, her friends, and family waited and prayed — hoping and thanking God in advance for the healing they believed He would provide. The wait along with the rigorous chemo treatments began to take an increasing toll on her body. She was hospitalized several times in a few short months. Tiffany began to feel sick and exhausted almost every day.
A Chance for a Miracle
Almost six months after being put on the organ wait list, Tiffany got a call from her doctors explaining the possibility of a transplant from a living donor using a controversial and revolutionary medical process called a “domino transplant.” The transplant would take place with Tiffany being the recipient of a liver from sixty-year-old Vernon Roberson, who was suffering from amyloidosis, a genetic disease that attacks organs such as the heart, kidneys, liver, etc. He was awaiting a heart and liver transplant of his own and was asked if he would be willing to donate his liver to another individual in need when he received his transplants. Interestingly, his liver would be a viable organ for Tiffany because the disease would not likely transfer to Tiffany, and if it did, it would be twenty to thirty years, at which time she could get another transplant.
After much research and prayer, Tiffany felt peace that this expedited opportunity for a liver was the lifesaving opportunity she had been waiting for. When she agreed to the opportunity, the surgeons told her that she needed to have her phone with her 24/7 and to be “on call.” She needed to be prepared and packed and ready to get to Texas at a moment’s notice. Time was of the essence in a surgery situation like this!
A friend from Tiffany’s church had a connection with a pilot who volunteered to fly Tiffany and her husband to Texas via private plane on call, night or day, whenever the time came. Her in-laws committed to taking care of their young children for the duration of her stay in Texas. All the preliminary plans were in motion. Now they waited.
On a Tuesday morning in late June, her phone rang with a call from Texas — they told her to be prepared, for it could be any moment as they were running tests on organs that came in. Tiffany got another call during the middle of Bible study, surrounded by a group of close friends. Immediately, the friends and prayer warriors around her were able to hold her hand, reassure her, and offer prayer with a physical presence. This specific transplant ended up not coming through that day. Tiffany explains that the timing of that call was reassurance that God was indeed moving.
On July 8th, the real call came. Tiffany packed her bags, kissed her children, and bravely got on the plane. She knew the moment her feet hit the Texas soil that the whirlwind procedure would begin. When she arrived, she was immediately admitted into the ICU and given a few minutes to pray with a chaplain before preparing for the operation. She was overwhelmed with an ambivalent mixture of thanksgiving and fear. She worried about potential complications of the risky surgery and wondered what the pain level would be like when she awoke.
Doctor Mark Ghobrial, director of the Methodist Center for Liver Disease and Transplantation at Houston Methodist, led the extensive transplant team. The team consisted of nearly 50 people, including four liver surgeons, two cardiac surgeons, and anesthesia teams. It was quite the undertaking since this was first time a domino transplant had ever taken place at this hospital. The surgery took nearly took 12 hours. It was coordinated and executed to perfection.
Tiffany awoke from surgery with breathing tubes, hands tied down, and unable to talk. One of her first memories, when she was conscious enough to communicate, was when the nurse handed her a note pad and she wrote, “Am I okay?” to her husband. Brian smiled hugely and nodded. She scribbled, “Did anything go wrong?” He reassured her that she was stable and all was as expected. The immediate feeling of relief was almost unbearable!
She remained in Texas for six weeks following the procedure for therapy, tests, and follow-up. Though thankful for such a great outcome, the recovery period was difficult because she missed her children who were miles away in Alabama. She focused on getting mobile as quickly as possible so that she would be able to return to her life.
Reflections on Surviving
We often learn the valuable lesson of how to walk by faith during the challenging times of life. As Tiffany reflected on the struggle of dealing with all of the unknowns in her battle against cancer, she shared, “I’ve had to accept that God doesn’t always work on our timeline, but His timing is always perfect.” When people ask about how she managed to trust God with such confusing circumstances, she said that God taught her to continuously surrender her wishes, dreams, and hopes to Him. “I had to let go. I had to just say, ‘Okay God, whatever is Your will, help me be okay with it.’ It was a daily struggle.”
Today, Tiffany is enjoying her family and making hopeful plans for the future. Sometimes it seems too good to be true. She is filled with gratefulness that the transplant was successful and treasures the years that have been added to her life. She said, “The first Christmas after my diagnosis, I was convinced I would never see another one.” Now that she’s home, she has six months of chemo remaining and five years of waiting before she can safely rest with the security of being fully in remission. She is in awe of the miraculous story God has given her and shares it freely with the press, other cancer patients, and whoever else will listen. Tiffany is thankful for the expertise and willingness of excellent doctors, but ultimately considers her life-saving operation an answer to prayer and a testimony to the goodness of God.