Cancer wasn't on Michael Lax's radar, let alone cholangiocarcinoma, a bile duct cancer that affects just two out of 100,000 people each year. Since he didn't have a family history of the rare disease, it was a shock when he was diagnosed with it. His health deteriorated rapidly, and he underwent surgery at a local hospital. Lax remembers the word his doctors there used to describe his post surgical chance for survival: infinitesimal. But after seeking a second opinion at UCSF, he realized he had more options.
Michael Lax: Cancer Free After a Second Opinion at UCSF
Now, a few years after his UCSF surgery, Lax is cancer free. He returns to UCSF every few months for tests, visits he almost looks forward to, he says, because they reaffirm that he's healthy. He's even making plans for a golf game with his surgeon, Dr. Carlos Corvera. Here, Lax talks about his UCSF journey and what he wants people with rare cancers to know.
What was your life like before your diagnosis?
Before I got sick, I was like any other guy who went to work. I worked a lot of hours trying to provide for my family and grow in my career.
All of a sudden one day, I found out I was suffering from cancer, and it changes you. It changes your perspective. You have a drive, but it's a drive to survive. It's not a drive to grow your career.
What was it like to decide to undergo the UCSF surgery after your initial surgery?
It was a really hard decision. The odds were saying this patient has, on average, nine months to live. I said, "All right, I have that nine months banked with my kids and my family, or I can do this surgery and I may not even have that nine months. Or I can have longer.” It's a gamble. I went back and forth.
I certainly didn't want to live the rest of my nine months in the hospital. But at the end of the day, I picked up the phone and called Dr. Corvera, this renowned surgeon who gave me, little old me, his cell phone number. I called him on a Saturday afternoon. He took time from the soccer game where his kid was playing to talk to me, and he helped me through the decision. He kind of made me feel better that the odds were in my favor with the surgery, and that's what pushed me over the edge.
Dr. Niemann, the anesthesiologist, also gave me his cell phone number. He said, "By the way, I may not even allow the surgery," because after doing a few rounds of chemo, I was pretty weak. He said, "You may not be strong enough." I took that as a personal challenge, so I got on my elliptical. I was pedaling away on the elliptical for a few weeks, so I could pass the stress test, so I could prove to Dr. Niemann that I was strong enough.
What did you learn from that whole process?
You have to get a second opinion.
We learned through simple research that there are places with expertise in rare cancers. UCSF is one of those. It's not that UCSF gave me instant hope. They agreed with the initial diagnosis, but the whole approach was different. They didn't say, "We're here to manage the end of your life." They said, "Here's a treatment plan."
Then Dr. Kelley brings my case to the tumor board (a regular gathering of UCSF oncologists and other specialists that allows them to confer on challenging cases), and then she calls us up and says, "We think we have a surgical option." I had been told there was no surgical option. Things started to change.
There are places with expertise in rare cancers. UCSF is one of those.
How did things start to change?
Dr. Kelley gave us a sense that UCSF really had an understanding of cholangiocarcinoma, had a plan to attack my specific case. She never promised me an outcome but gave me the feeling that I was in good care. For that, I'm forever grateful.
What were you thinking going into surgery?
I didn't think the surgery was going to save my life.
I had hope. I had a whole lot of hope – more than I ever had with the other hospital. But I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be here, two years later, cancer free. Now I'm going to live a long life, as long a life as I otherwise would have. I'm doing all the things I used to do.
How is your life different after cancer?
In a lot of ways, you get back into the routine of things, but I've always got cancer in the back of my mind. I'm always a little nervous about that. Every now and then, I feel like, “Uh-oh, it might be coming back.” Which is wrong; it's not. You try not to think about those things, but it's not cliché to say that you value life more. I value the time I have with my family. I've been pushing my wife to do more vacations. I'm still the same guy I always was. I'm not going to let cancer change me that much.
I'm still just a dad. That's me.
You mentioned how your wife supported you during this process and was the one to find the UCSF program. Did this experience change your relationship?
My marriage is stronger. My wife was with me every day, every single appointment, and there were so many appointments. She never missed one.
She went with me everywhere and held my hand. It made all the difference in the world that she was there next to me.
It's not just being in debt to my wife; it's the bond that was created. It's a stronger bond than I've ever had with anybody.
How was your overall UCSF experience?
I was in the hospital for about 28 days. You get to know the doctors and the nurses. The nurses at UCSF are second to none. They truly take an interest in you and get to know you.
We had a sofa bed in there, where my wife basically slept for the 28 days. The nurses would take care of her as if she was a patient.
What was your biggest lesson?
When you have a rare cancer, there is hope. Get with an organization like UCSF or some other center that is a specialist, and there's hope.