A surprising diagnosis leads to treatment for Liam’s liver cancer

A biopsy confirmed that Liam had HCC, a rare and aggressive form of liver cancer that typically affects teens and young adults.

For Liam Dickerson, what started as a simple sick day turned into a journey he never expected. In 2018, feeling unwell, he visited his high school nurse. Although he had chest and underarm pain, the nurse was concerned that he might have appendicitis and recommended seeing a doctor for an ultrasound.

Her suggestion confused Liam, but he followed her advice. The result came as a shock: Liam didn’t have appendicitis, but he did have a large mass on his liver.

A rare diagnosis

Liam’s doctor referred him to a larger hospital near his home in Connecticut. Although Liam and his parents were concerned that the mass could be cancerous, further lab tests revealed nothing revealing, leading clinicians to believe the tumor was benign.

“They told us that hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is so rare that we don’t have to worry about it,” Liam recalls.

But a biopsy confirmed the worst: Liam had HCC, a rare and aggressive form of liver cancer that typically affects teens and young adults. His specific type of HCC was called fibrolamellar carcinoma.

Liam in hospital for liver cancer treatment

Coming to Boston

Concerned about the rarity of HCC and his doctors’ exposure to the disease, Liam’s family decided to explore other options. Liam’s aunt, who had previously had cancer, recommended contacting Dr. Heung Bae Kim, the surgeon who had assisted her in the treatment. In addition to his other roles, Dr. Kim plays a critical role on the care team at the Liver Tumor Center at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.

“We were already traveling to Boston for appointments at the Joslin Diabetes Center,” says Liam, who also has type 1 diabetes. Convinced that the trip would be worth it, his parents decided to turn his care over to Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s.

Getting through the treatment

Once in Boston, Liam learned that he needed surgery, followed by chemotherapy. From the beginning, he not only met Dr. Kim, but also Dr. Allison O’Neill, director of the Liver Tumor Center, and her team. Although the treatment was not a pleasant experience, Liam took it to heart. What made treatment a little easier was Liam’s great support system of family and friends, along with his penchant for dark humor.

“I knew I was doing everything I could to get better,” he says. “It was hard for my family and my girlfriend, but I knew I just had to do my best.”

Liam and his girlfriend

Looking to the future

Today, Liam navigates life as a 20-year-old cancer survivor. While on a break from his studies, he looks for a job and recently taught himself to drive a car with a manual gearbox. Once an avid fencer, he’s not ready to return to that kind of practice. “Chemo kind of affected my ankles,” he admits. “Sometimes I feel like an old man in a child’s body.”

Despite the challenges, Liam is grateful that his school nurse sent him for that ultrasound. And he is looking forward to the future: two years after the treatment, he is officially cancer-free.

Read more about the Liver Tumor Center.

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