Unique area cancer treatment offers Oxford man ‘hope for a future’

Steve Roberto, a cancer survivor and transplant recipient who lives in Oxford, has overcome many hurdles.

He learned in 2013 that he had been living with Hepatitis C for more than 30 years (causing him to develop cirrhosis of the liver), and he battled and overcame a liver sarcoma, a rare cancer of the liver.

Roberto, 55, received proton therapy (at the Proton Therapy Center in Liberty Twp.), killing the cancer, and he was able to be put on the donor list for a liver transplant, which he just received last month.

MORE: Liberty Twp. proton therapy center marks 1-year anniversary

“This journey started for me five years ago when I went to see my doctor after I was having issues with my stomach,” he said. “His son is a specialist, and he sent me to see him and I was diagnosed with hep C.”

Compounding the problem for Roberto was the fact that he also was found to have cirrhosis of the liver and was in need of a transplant.

“I was using a combination of drugs to treat the Hepatitis C and it worked, but there is a six-month period of testing to make sure it stays in remission and it came back,” Roberto explained. “And you can’t get on a transplant list with hep C.”

All seemed lost at that point, and the odds were not in his favor for survival.

But he was referred to specialists at UC Health to help get a liver transplant, as the treatment facility has the only liver transplant program in the region.

Joannie Foster, the pre-transplant coordinator at UC Health, continued to monitor Roberto’s health.

“She was amazing and just kept checking to see how my condition was,” he said. “It wasn’t good because eventually I found out that I had a mass growing in my stomach.”

He said the doctor “stuck an eight-inch needle in my stomach to see if this was some sort of abscess that could be drained, but it turned out to be a rare cancer of the liver.”

Dr. Jordan Kharofa, a radiation oncologist, and Dr. Shimu Shah from UC Health and the UC Cancer Institute worked to put together a plan to rid Roberto of his cancer.

“Roberto’s case was presented during the multidisciplinary gastrointestinal tumor board at the institute,” according to UC’s Katie Pence. “A tumor board is when dedicated specialists from all treatment areas — oncologists, surgeons, clinical trial specialists, radiologists, pharmacists and other experts — meet and assess a patient’s case to collectively determine the best course of treatment.”

The decision was made to have him go through the revolutionary proton therapy at the Cincinnati Children’s/UC Health Proton Therapy Center in Liberty Twp., which is one of only 24 in the country and uses cutting-edge technology to treat cancer.

Proton radiation therapy is one of the latest tools to combat cancer. It uses high-energy proton beams to deliver pinpoint strikes to tumors.

“They called me and said it would cost $133,000, and of course insurance didn’t want to pay because the tumor is rare,” he said. “ … But they kept working with my insurance and the insurance eventually refunded me almost all of my money.”

The proton therapy amazed Roberto as he described the machine as a “futuristic looking thing from the Jetsons.”

“They had the tumor encased by two 45-degree-angle maneuvers that didn’t harm anything,” he said.

Closer to full health, Roberto received his liver transplant in February.

“I didn’t feel this good when I was 40,” he said, with an emphatic tone in his voice. “I can’t thank the staff at UC enough for all that they did - they gave me life. I went from three to six months to live to having a new liver and hope for a future.”

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