Maureen Berry once struggled with disordered eating, but she turned around her relationship with food. Then, when she was in the best shape of her life, she learned she had a rare form of cancer.
The 59-year-old Berry worked for a decade in the restaurant business and spent many years in food sales and marketing. These days, the Western Kentucky resident is a cookbook author, podcaster, speaker and photographer.
“Food changed my life,” she said. “Eventually, I conjured my relationship with food into a career that included a new, healthy lifestyle.”
Berry began noticing a peculiar feeling of fullness in mid-February 2019. She kept a food journal and realized she was eating no more than 1,000 calories a day. As someone who loves food, she knew something was wrong. Then Berry started feeling a stabbing pain under her breastbone. She went to her local gastroenterologist for an upper GI endoscopy, CT scan and colonoscopy.
The tests showed a basketball-sized mass in Berry’s abdomen. The mass was pushing on her abdominal organs and making it difficult for her to eat. Her gastroenterologist suspected a gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST).
Berry did some research and decided to see Dr. Michael Cavnar at the UK Markey Cancer Center. Cavnar diagnosed Berry with a dedifferentiated liposarcoma. It’s a rare cancer that develops in the fat cells of soft tissue and often grows in the abdomen or legs.
Being diagnosed with a cancer that starts in fatty tissue was ironic to Berry. “I was living my best life,” she said. “This cancer diagnosis didn’t seem fair. And it wasn’t. But I also know that life is not about fairness.”
Dedifferentiated liposarcomas can be very aggressive and deadly because they often affect other organs. Berry’s tumor had wrapped itself around her internal organs, encasing her left kidney, the left side of her pancreas, her spleen and the left side of her colon. “The question was if we would even be able to remove it,” Cavnar said. “We talked about it and in the end, she decided to proceed.”
Berry first underwent four rounds of aggressive chemotherapy with medical oncologist Dr. Reema Patel. Unfortunately, chemotherapy didn’t shrink the tumor.
“Dr. Cavnar said, ‘You only get one shot at this surgery.’ I was prepared to do what I had to do, and it saved my life.”
“At that point, I was exhausted, but I just forged ahead,” Berry said. “Dr. Cavnar said, ‘You only get one shot at this surgery.’ I was prepared to do what I had to do, and it saved my life.”
In August 2019, Berry underwent a 10-hour surgery to remove the entire liposarcoma. It was nearly 20 pounds and 39 centimeters. The surgery team also removed Berry’s distal pancreas, spleen, left kidney and left colon.
Surgery for a dedifferentiated liposarcoma takes planning. Cavnar uses imaging to pinpoint potential problems and determine if other specialists need to be in the operating room. The surgery team can include vascular surgeons, urologists and other specialists. In Berry’s case, Markey urologist Dr. John R. Bell removed the left kidney.
“This type of surgery takes effort, and it’s what you come to a university for,” Cavnar said. “We can assemble five different specialists to come together for one operation.”
One year after her surgery, Berry’s scans are clear and she is cancer free, Cavnar said. Because liposarcomas have a high recurrence rate, Berry may need more operations down the road. “She’s doing well,” he said. “She had a really big operation. She had some side effects and struggled for a while, but she is very motivated.”
The perseverance Berry displayed was unique, Cavnar said. “She had a long hospital stay and she just toughed it out. I think a lot of people wouldn’t have handled it the way she did, and that makes a big difference.”