Woman with bile duct cancer aims to be “miracle patient”

Barbara Sturgeon had already recovered from a previous diagnosis of endometrial cancer, undergoing a complete hysterectomy in 2019, when she learned she had bile duct cancer just two years later.

“It was sobering development—I thought I had already beat cancer,” she says. “But this is the hand I’m dealt, and I have to play it best I can. I decided then to take it one day at a time, maintain a positive attitude, and move forward with the outlook that I’m going to be around for a long time.”

Bothered by a transient pain in her side that became more frequent over time, a biopsy revealed tumors in Barbara’s liver. She was diagnosed with bile duct cancer, also known as cholangiocarcinoma, a form of biliary cancer that impacts the thin tubes in the digestive system that run from the liver and gallbladder to the small intestine.

Immediately, Barbara did her research and scheduled an appointment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute with Thomas Abrams, MD. She began a chemotherapy regimen every two weeks, resulting in severe nausea and a loss of nearly 80 pounds. Now on a lower dose of chemotherapy, Barbara comes to Dana-Farber for infusions every three weeks and is beginning to feel better.

“The nurses at Dana-Farber are by far the best group of nurses I’ve ever met,” says Barbara, with a special nod to Karen Sommer, MSN, NP, her nurse practitioner, and Mary O’Malley, BSN, RN, OCN, a nurse on the infusion team. “They really do care and do their very best to make sure you are comfortable through the process.”

Soon, Barbara will begin a regimen of immunotherapy that she and Dr. Abrams hope will allow her to move on from chemotherapy. She is looking forward to regaining her strength and returning to her favorite hobbies this spring, including spending time with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, knitting, and training Newfoundland dogs for obedience and water rescue operations on the South Shore. An endeavor that involves a great deal of physical exertion, Barbara works with her own Newfoundland—currently weighing in at 160 pounds—and other trainers to teach the dogs how to swim out to rescue drowning victims and pull them ashore.

“I don’t make cancer my life—it’s something in my life that I have to deal with,” says Barbara. “I tell Dr. Abrams I’m going to be his miracle patient, and he says I already am.”

Annually, about 8,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with bile duct cancer, which is often misdiagnosed as other types of cancer. Because it is so rare, it has been difficult to study, but notable strides have been made in the past several years thanks in part to the approval by the Federal Drug Administration of two new treatments studied in clinical trials at Dana-Farber.

Barbara advises patients facing a similar diagnosis to try and stay positive: “Do your homework and take it one day at a time. There will be days when you are tired, so take those days for what they are and rest. But do what little you can every day to live life to the fullest.”

Support patients like Barbara by joining The Dana-Farber Campaign, our ambitious, multi-year fundraising effort to prevent, treat, and defy cancer. The Dana-Farber Campaign will accelerate the Institute’s strategic priorities by supporting revolutionary science, extraordinary care, and exceptional expertise. As a community, we have the power to create a more hopeful, cancer-free future—in Boston and around the world. Together, we can defy cancer at every turn. Learn more about The Dana-Farber Campaign at DefyCancer.org.