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Experimental Surgery Gives Cancer Patient Hope

Woman Diagnosed With 'Untreatable' Disease

BOSTON - September 2004 - Nine months ago, Karen Grant was diagnosed with a cancer that doctors said was untreatable, but an experimental surgery gave her a sliver of hope.

NewsCenter 5's Heather Unruh has been chronicling her incredible journey that began in the spring.

Now, more than ever, the Chadwicks are savoring time spent together.

"I feel, at least, that I'm making sure that I capture every moment somewhere up here, so that I can keep it there," said Grant's sister, Rusty Chadwick.

Karen, who had been married for two years and hoping to start her own family, was given a horrific diagnosis -- mesothelioma.

"It was a very scary moment when (the doctor) told us. I have never even heard of this disease before. I never even heard of it," Karen said.

But without immediate treatment, there's very little time.

"I'm worried about whether she will survive this," Karen's husband, Geoffrey Grant, said.

The rare cancer comes from exposure to asbestos -- an insulation product banned in 1975, when Karen was 1-year-old. At age 29, she's the youngest person ever documented to have it on both lungs.

"It came as a shock because here I am, a healthy person, and all of the sudden, I get this disease on my lungs that I have no idea how I got," Grant said.

Searching for answers, her father tested their Haverhill, Mass., home. But asbestos-covered pipes -- sealed years ago for safety -- were airtight. And at this point, finding the source of Karen's exposure is the least of her worries. First there was a risky surgery.

"The advantage to her is that we're not removing either lung," Brigham and Women's Hospital Dr. David Sugarbaker said.

A cutting-edge technique pioneered in Boston by Sugarbaker was her only shot. It's an experimental surgery with no guarantees. But for Karen, there was nothing to lose.

"I am fighting every day. And I don't think once that I am not going to win," she said.

In the operating room, Sugarbaker and his team carefully cut away the aggressive tumor that lined her lungs, and lasered the tissue to burn away cells that might have been missed. Then they filled Karen's chest cavity with a hot chemotherapy, which gave her lungs an hour long soaking.

"When you heat up chemotherapy, you increase the metabolic rate or the activity of the cancer cells that are left, and cancer cells that are very active are sucking up chemotherapy as a poison," Sugarbaker said.

Grant came through the surgery, but complications nearly killed her. She spent six weeks in intensive care -- unable to breathe and eat on her own, or even talk.

NewsCenter 5 saw her again almost three months later at Youville Rehabilitation Hospital, where she was fighting to get her strength back. At that time, she just wanted to come home.

"I miss my family and not being able to see them all the time," Karen said.

And after 114 days, Karen's big moment finally arrived.

"I made it home. I made it home. I made it. I made it," she said.

Karen knows her cancer may come back, but she's living for the moment -- one breath at a time.

"I shouldn't be here, but I'm here, and it just takes time," she said.

Grant's circumstances are extraordinary. The treatment was very aggressive. Doctors determined it was right for her because she was so young and physically fit.

Her fight isn't over. Doctors are awaiting test results before starting her on traditional chemotherapy, but they do believe the worst is behind her.

Despite the ban on asbestos, the number of cases of this cancer have continued to climb in Massachusetts.

Sugarbaker said that he is seeing an increase in the number of young people with the disease.

Follow-up: Doctors cannot detect cancer in Karen Grant, January 2005

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