Woman with rare cancer: ‘I was about as close to death as you could get’

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Miracles do happen. Just ask Danyell Weisinger.

The 45-year-old Hamilton woman experienced stomach pains a couple of years ago that wouldn’t go away. After visiting her family doctor and then a surgeon. X-rays revealed a fatty liver and gallstones, and she needed her gallbladder removed. The surgeon, she said, discovered black spots that covered her abdomen.

The surgeon sent the samples to the Mayo Clinic.

“Even then, I was still kind of thought it was probably nothing and was some type of infection or something,” said Weisinger.

When the results were back, in her surgeon’s office, she sat down in front of him and he handed her a box of Kleenex. She knew it wasn’t good news. The biopsy results showed Weisinger had stage 3 peritoneal mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer that affects 500 to 600 Americans each year.

“I was in shock,” she recalled, “because the first time I remember hearing about mesothelioma was on a commercial.”

The cancer developed on the tissue lining of the abdomen, known as the peritoneum. Though there are treatments, there is no cure and the outcome is poor.

Most mesothelioma cases are caused by asbestos exposure, but that’s not Weisinger’s case. “They say I’ll probably go to my grave not knowing where it came from,” she said. “I never had a job relating anywhere I possibly could have picked it up at because they say once it gets into your body it could take anywhere from 20 to 50 years to surface.”

She was 43 when she was diagnosed and was working as a bank teller at the time.

“I was just in shock,” she said. “I thought, I’m a healthy 43-year-old young lady, and to hear something like this, and hear how bad it was, and I didn’t even feel sick other than a stomach ache.”

Weisinger was referred to Dr. Prasad Kudalkar at Oncology Hematology Care in Cincinnati. Often called Dr. K by his patients, he said the best outcome for Weisinger was surgery before starting chemotherapy, which he said chemo by itself has “limitations and only offered Danyell about six months.”

Dr. Kudalkar called upon Dr. Shyam Allamaneni, a surgical oncologist at Mercy Health.

When Weisinger met with Dr. Allamaneni she had a distended belly from the tumor, and there was no guarantee the surgery would be successful. But before the scheduled surgery, Weisinger was hospitalized with pain related to the cancer. Because it was the start of the pandemic, her husband and children were unable to visit.

“It was a really short (12-to-24-hour) window that if I don’t do anything she would die,” Dr. Allamaneni said. “And if I did anything, I was not sure.”

Weisinger wanted to fight for herself, her husband, and her children.

After the two-day, 18-hour surgery, Dr. Allamaneni removed all visible tumors of the abdominal lining. He also removed five organs: the appendix, spleen, colon, ovaries, and lining of her abdomen. He removed a 25-pound tumor in her stomach, the likely source of her stomach pain. He then did a hot chemotherapy wash, which delivers highly concentrated doses of chemotherapy to kill the remaining cancer cells.

A hot chemotherapy wash is one of the last options for some cancers, like ovarian and colon cancers, but Dr. Allamaneni said, “For the type of cancer she had, that is the main treatment.”

Dr. Allamaneni also performed an ileostomy, which is an opening in the abdominal wall for the elimination of digestive waste into a pouch on the outside of the body. The thought was that the ileostomy would be be permanent, but on March 23, she’ll have the ileostomy procedure reversed.

While he’s “extremely happy” the surgery had been successful, but he’s more impressed that she’s back to a normal life.

“She’s living her life,” Dr. Allmaneni said. “That’s where I get the most satisfaction.”

“Miracles do happen, and one aspect of the story is the COVID thing, and Jewish Hospital staff came along pretty well. She was quite isolated.

After a one-month hospital stay and another month stay in a rehabilitation center, Weisinger started chemotherapy. Dr. Kudalkar prescribed a combination of chemotherapy drugs for five cycles and eventually added a tumor-starving therapy called Avastin, which affected her kidney function and caused peripheral nerve damage.

While Weisinger was undergoing chemotherapy, which was making her sick, Dr. Kudalkar had the tumor tested to see if there was a mutation through next-generation sequencing and genetic testing.

“It was a pleasant surprise when I got the results,” he said.

The tumor had a gene called BRCA, and it’s rare to have that mutation in mesothelioma, he said. Dr. Kudalkar had her blood tested, and the same mutation was also identified. He was able to treat her cancer with an oral medication.

Two years after Weisinger’s diagnosis, all scans have been cleared, Dr. Kudalkar said.

“Danyell is not a typical mesothelioma patient,” he said. “She’s in the rare 1-to-6% group as you don’t typically find a somatic and germline BRCA mutation with mesothelioma. Performing the genetic testing opened up the avenue for a novel treatment, and she’s had a complete response.”

Weisinger said she’ll probably have follow-up visits and scans for the rest of her life, but doesn’t mind, especially with Dr. Kudalkar.

“He’s the one doctor I actually look forward to seeing. He’s like family,” she said.

“It was heartbreaking to see such a young, healthy woman suffering from this rare disease,” said Dr. Kudalkar. “Our entire team held her hand and kept reminding her that she had a lot to live for.”

Despite being a little winded at times and isn’t as fast as she once was, “I can honestly say I feel better than I ever have.” And until she sees her transformed body ― which went from 246 pounds pre-diagnosis to 138 pounds today ― she doesn’t feel like she ever had cancer.

“I guess I was about as close to death as you could get. I just don’t feel like that at all. I feel like I’m going to be around until I’m about 100 years old,” she said.

“Even with the most grim diagnosis, there’s still hope, and with God all things are possible. That’s my motto, that’s what I live by and I don’t live in fear. I live in hope and prayer.

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