Jill’s dogged determination to overcome mesothelioma has driven her to get the best treatments available and beat the average prognosis by leaps and bounds.

Story of a Fighter

A native of West Virginia, Jill Litton started noticing a decline in her health when she turned 50. Her doctors faced difficulties diagnosing what was wrong, finally pinpointing the culprit—peritoneal mesothelioma. She made a point to demand an experienced doctor and has survived well past the average prognosis for mesothelioma thanks to that wise choice.

Jill is married and has two grown sons. She lives a simple, happy life with her family and has found a new appreciation for life thanks to her stubborn will to fight her illness.

“I plan on being at my granddaughters’ graduations and marriages,” she said. “I don’t plan on checking out anytime soon.”

Jill started experiencing abdominal pain and eventually began hemorrhaging. She went to see her gynecologist to evaluate the issue and ultimately had to have a complete hysterectomy (the removal of her uterus and ovaries). During her surgery, the doctors found what they believed to be cancerous cells, but they weren’t sure what to do.

“They were very stumped,” said Jill. “They told me it was inactive.”

Her doctor took some biopsies of what they found and sent them to the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. The only thing her doctors knew was that it was “a microscopic thing” and that Jill should come back immediately if she started experiencing any unusual pain. An oncologist was not consulted at this time.

It was a few more years until things started taking a serious turn. This isn’t unusual for mesothelioma because the symptoms often take decades to develop. In Jill’s case, she started experiencing abdominal swelling. It was then that she scheduled a CT scan with her doctor to find out what was going on.

Jill received confirmation of her diagnosis in November 2011, and decided from the outset that she would fight her disease with everything she had.

“I won’t let this thing take a hold of me,” she said.

Jill's Treatment Plan

Jill was treated with traditional chemotherapy, along with cytoreductive surgery and heated intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC). With the guidance of her doctor, Jill made the decision to tackle her cancer with the radical HIPEC procedure. Support for HIPEC is continually growing and it has even become the standard treatment for mesothelioma at some treatment centers.

Jill was supposed to have three rounds of traditional chemotherapy before her surgery. However, she became so sick that the doctors decided to drop it down to only two rounds. Once that was set, Jill went in for her surgery in March 2012.

The surgical procedure Jill had removes the lining of the abdomen, where mesothelioma generally originates, along with any seed-like tumors in the abdomen. Surgeons may also remove nonessential organs during the surgery if cancer has spread to them. Jill had her spleen, appendix, gall bladder and part of her pancreas removed during her surgery.

“I have a lot of faith in the HIPEC procedure,” Jill said after surgery. “Everyone has to decide for themselves, but it saved my life.”

Post surgery, the HIPEC procedure was administered. The procedure involves applying chemotherapy that has been heated to roughly 107 degrees directly to the abdomen. Cancerous cells are more sensitive to heat, and microscopic cells left over from surgery can be killed with the HIPEC.

Jill’s main advice for anyone planning on having HIPEC is preparation. She says, “If you’re ever diagnosed with this and you choose to go the route that I did with the HIPEC, you need to get your body strong.”

'Make Sure You Deal With a Really Good Specialist'

One of Jill’s biggest pieces of advice to new mesothelioma patients is to find a doctor who specializes in mesothelioma, stressing that you should “make sure you deal with a really good specialist.”

Jill knew from her experience with her gynecologist that she needed to see the best doctor she could find, and that’s exactly what she did. She even traveled 1,000 miles to get her initial treatment. While not every patient can travel so far for treatment, distance alone shouldn’t hinder someone from getting the treatment they need.

Jill also has an oncologist in West Virginia who keeps an eye on her disease. “He’s very positive and a very hopeful person,” she said. “I’ve just been really blessed with great doctors.”

The importance of seeing a specialist can actually be supported by a few points in Jill’s personal experience:

  • Jill’s initial doctors hadn’t encountered mesothelioma before because the disease is so rare. This is true with many doctors, including general oncologists.
  • Her treatment plan was complex and aggressive, requiring the experience of not only a good surgeon, but a surgeon who had experience with mesothelioma.
  • Jill has already outlived the average prognosis for patients like her because she made the decision to see a specialist.

Every patient needs to know that they are in control of who their doctor is and whether or not to accept that doctor’s treatment plan. Jill hammered this point home when she said:

“Find a good doctor. Don’t accept just anything. Don’t listen to one doctor. Know that you’re in charge of your body.”

Keeping the Faith

For Jill, her faith is an important part of her survival. She said it has helped her overcome the hardest parts of her diagnosis. “I don’t know why some things happen and some things don’t, but it’s easier to hold on to [God] than it is not to,” she said.

“Faith is what’s kept me alive.”

Survivor of mesothelioma imageJill’s message is one of positivity and believing that mesothelioma is a disease that can be overcome. For her, this strength to overcome her disease is found through her faith in God. Jill believes that every patient can and should have faith in their ability to beat their prognosis.

She also emphasizes the importance of realizing that many doctors aren’t familiar with mesothelioma and the strides being made through research.

“There are doctors out there now telling patients they have a year, and they might not realize there are doctors out there that are breaking ground,” said Jill.

“My advice is do not let it take over your life.”