Lauren Anderson can’t even look at a needle or set foot in a hospital. Anything medical has always been a weak-kneed, hard pass.
Even as her mother, Kris, 51, underwent nine years of chemotherapy for a cancer that moved from her colon to her liver, Lauren would only go as far as the coffee stand.
“Every time, I would get light-headed and need fresh air,” Lauren said. “The hospital is so much for me. Just overwhelming.”
So it was a bold act of love, and courage, when Lauren, 26, agreed last December to undergo major surgery and donate a portion of her liver to her mother so that she might live.
“It’s been pretty inspiring,” said Kris Anderson, who lives in Redmond. “When she came forward and said she really wanted to do this, I wasn’t sure it would be feasible for her.
“But she said, this is such a short period of time to do something that could extend my life for years.”
Said Lauren: “I feel brave, but my family helped me get through it all. It was important to my mom and my family.
“I just knew that in the end, it would all be worth it.”
The surgery — at the time, performed fewer than 30 times in the U.S. — removes a cancerous liver and replaces it with the lobe of a healthy liver from a living donor. Both livers then regrow to approximately 90% of their original size in three months.
The procedure, performed at UW Medicine, was the first living-donor liver transplant for metastatic colorectal cancer performed in the Pacific Northwest, said Dr. Mark Sturdevant, who performed the surgery.
Lauren was able to go home after four days, and Kris two days after that. They spent the holiday season at home in Redmond, where their family cared for them both.
Kris Anderson was first diagnosed with colon cancer in 2011; a tumor was found during her very first colonoscopy. The tumor was removed, but a month later, the cancer returned, this time on her liver.
Over nine years, Anderson underwent dozens of chemotherapy treatments, and while those kept the cancer from spreading, they damaged the organ — but not enough to make her eligible for the transplant list.
“We were out of options by the end of the summer, outside of the transplant,” Kris Anderson said. “We were waiting to see how this all played out, but they knew I was down to my last treatment.
“And how long I had left was not something that we ever really talked about.”
Anderson’s oncologist at UW Medicine, Dr. William Harris, consulted with Sturdevant, who had read about a live-donor transplant procedure developed in Norway in 2013 and that had since been performed successfully at a handful of U.S. hospitals.
“When I came here, I already decided at some point we would do it,” said Sturdevant, who came to UW Medicine last year. “And when Dr. Harris called me with Kris’ situation, we went through it.
“The main thing is not to have a procedure looking for a patient,” Sturdevant said. “It’s not a good way to practice medicine. But Kris was an excellent candidate.”
Kris Anderson’s other daughter, Sarah, 24, offered to be a donor, as did Anderson’s niece — both of them under 35 and the same blood type. Friends offered, too, which surprised Sturdevant.
“It’s pretty abnormal for so many people to come forward during a pandemic,” he said.
But doctors decided that the squeamish Lauren’s liver was the perfect match. No matter that she was a bartender in Portland, and a fan of a good Negroni cocktail.
“It’s kind of a running joke in our family,” Kris said. “My new liver has been well-loved by alcohol.”
Once the living-donor procedure became an option, there was another struggle with the insurance company, which denied them on every appeal level. Then, just before Thanksgiving, Anderson learned the vice president of the insurance company had reviewed her case and consulted with doctors at Harvard University, who deemed the procedure a reasonable treatment.
That Lauren was willing to endure the testing, surgery and recovery meant a lot to everyone, including the medical team.
“That was pretty amazing,” Sturdevant said. “The words ‘courage’ and ‘hero’ get overused in our society, but someone doing something they don’t like for weeks and months and do it anyway? She never complained.
“It was a pretty impressive bond to see.”
Kris’ heart, though, was pulled in several directions: She wanted the surgery but didn’t want her daughter to feel pressure. And she also wanted to care for her daughter as she was readied for surgery, but couldn’t.
“That was hard for me as a mother not to be there with her,” she said. “And she was asked if she was being coerced, or did she feel like she had to do this? It was a lot of tough questions.
“But it wasn’t a hard decision for (Lauren), and she feels really positive about being able to do it.”
Said Lauren: “Knowing how important it was for me to be approved gave me the courage and strength to get it done, to walk in there even though I had high anxiety.”
It was also important that she get a sense of what her mother has been through for all these years.
“I appreciate her fight,” she said. “I’ve held her in high regard, but now it’s even higher. Proud isn’t even the right word.”
There is a 70% chance of liver-transplant patients surviving for five years, Sturdevant said, “but I would say based on Kris’s specific parameters, she’s one of these people that we think has a better chance than that.”
Kris is just happy to think about something other than cancer. Travel, just being “normal,” or being alive to see her daughters — and her son, Ryan, 19 — get married.
“I feel like I have renewed time.”
And now that Lauren has gotten over her fear of hospitals, Kris said, “she should have confidence in her ability to do things. Having children, or something of her own.”
Lauren is only thinking as far as March, when she will be cleared to take a trip with her boyfriend, and try out her regrown liver.
“I just can’t wait to have a Negroni,” she said.