Providing hope, LewisGale becomes first in Virginia to offer new treatment for colon cancer patients

LewisGale is currently the only place in Virginia that offers Hepatic Artery Infusion Therapy

A first-of-its-kind treatment in Virginia is providing hope to people with advanced stages of colon cancer.

LewisGale in Roanoke is only place in the Commonwealth providing Hepatic Artery Infusion (HAI) Therapy. LewisGale began offering HAI in December, and it’s already showing promise with patients like David Rockwell of Moneta.

He was among the first set of patients to receive the treatment when it was offered at LewisGale. He calls it a “game-changer.”

David’s Story

David Rockwell’s life changed forever in a doctors office three years ago. He went to see his primary care for a hernia and stomach pains, but was stunned with the diagnosis — he had stage four colon cancer.

“It was rough. That’s your life. I’ve known people with cancer at less stages, stage three. Stage 4? My life is limited,” David said.

David is a husband, a father, still working and riding Harley’s. He was only 49 years old at the time he was diagnosed and had no warning.

“I didn’t have history of it in my family,” David said. “Just to find out then before I was getting ready to turn 50. It was crazy!”

At the time of diagnosis, the cancer had already spread to his liver. He began his fight against cancer at LewisGale.

“My right side was totally covered, left side had spots on it. I had a one-inch tumor on my colon. They cut 3 inches out of my colon. That was my first surgery.”

There were multiple surgeries to come.

“It’s been a battle,” David said.

But David said chemotherapy was the hardest part. “Chemo is rough. I’m not going to lie to you. I would be here for hours, go home with the pump. I couldn’t lay in bed with my wife. I’d lay out in the couch, sweating, got a pump hooked up to me.”

Most prevalent in men, colon cancer is the second deadliest cancer and continues to be diagnosed more frequently in younger people like David, and doctors don’t know why. David’s doctor is Dominique Dempah, a surgeon at LewisGale.

“I feel like in my practice I’ve seen a lot more patients like that,” Dr. Dempah said. “We see a lot more younger patients showing up with advanced cancer in their liver and you see sometimes the conventional chemo running out of options.”

That’s where hepatic artery infusion comes in.

“It’s a game changer,” Dr. Dempah said.

HAI is a newer way to treat late stages of colon cancer like Davids. While it has been used in the medical field for some time, there aren’t a lot of hospitals trained to or equipped to offer it. LewisGale became the first in Virginia. David was one of the first patients to receive the treatment at LewisGale when they started offering HAI in December of 2023. David was so confident in the care he received rom Dr. Dempah and the LewisGale team, he opted not to travel to Duke University Hospital to receive treatment, but instead to waited for his doctor to be trained.

“She said it was up to me if I would like to go to Duke. I said absolutely not! I will wait for Dr. Dempah to learn it. I would rather for him to do it. I trust Dr. Dempah,” David said.

HAI Pump

Treatment begins with the HAI small being surgically implanted under the skin of the patient. Two weeks after surgery, the patient is ready for chemotherapy. Dr. Dempah explained the pump is connected to a catheter that goes into the artery.

“Because it only targets the liver and not the surrounding organs you are able to increase and really maximize the dose of chemotherapy,” Dr. Dempah said. In fact, Hepatic Artery Infusian therapy provides up to 400 times the amount of chemotherapy concentration directly to the tumors.

According to Intera Oncology, the medical device company behind HAI, traditional systemic chemotherapy is usually delivered through a patient’s vein, requiring the drug to travel through the body’s bloodstream to reach the liver. Only a small portion of the chemotherapy ultimately reaches the tumors in the liver. With HAI therapy, the drug is administered through the hepatic artery directly to the liver, delivering therapy to the tumors and limiting potential side effects elsewhere.

“That allows increase survival and sometimes some of those patients who were felt not to be surgical candidates for resection of the liver after the hepatic artery infusion, they were able to shrink the tumor enough that you can now remove those tumors,” Dr. Dempah said.

Hope for the future

David invited WSLS 10 to go to one of his chemotherapy treatments, a process which surprisingly now only takes about 30 minutes.

Despite the much high amounts of chemotherapy being delivers, the side effects are far less severe. “Nowhere near the effects. I can get this procedure done today, I go to work tomorrow,” David said. “I don’t feel as sick, I don’t feel bad. I can continue with my life.”

And these days, David’s life revolves around his newest family member, his grandson.

“With the other chemo, I couldn’t hold my grandson. I just got a grandson, a new grandson, David gushed. “There was no way I could hold him because it goes through my whole body. This new pump? I can hold my grandson! It’s awesome,” David said.

The pump has improved his quality of life and is helping him live longer. Dempah said LewisGale has seen good progress with patients. “When you follow them as far as their scans your seeing their tumor markers coming down,” Dr. Dempah said.

David reports good progress with the treatment.

“Good progress. Low numbers. Everything has been coming back good. Between night and day. You have to figure they are shooting poison in you. The poison goes through here and goes through your whole body before it attacks anything else. This pump, it’s shooting poison but it’s going directly where it is supposed to go. So, you aren’t killing off other good cells. It’s awesome. I’m glad they tried it on me.”

David credits his doctors and the new treatment for still being here today.

“I didn’t think that I would be living now. I really didn’t,” David said. “How many people do you know that has stage four colon cancer still walking, still living. I’m still doing what I can do. I still ride. I still go out, fish. I never thought I would still be here three years ago.”

While the fight is far from over, the treatment has given David hope.

“My biggest hope and dream is to get rid of it all together. In reality? Don’t know if that will happen. I’ve learned to live with that. But it’s let me live longer. I’ve been able to see my son get married; I’ve been able to see my grandson get born. I couldn’t ask for no more.”

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