Missouri Liver Cancer Survivor Gets Life-Changing Transplant

“The relief of knowing I don’t have to worry about my liver cancer coming back is just tremendous.”  —Matt Dickhut 

Matt Dickhut jokes he’s never won the Powerball, despite decades of trying his hand. But he did win the lottery. 

Instead of a big check, his winnings came in the form of a new liver. 

The Raytown resident had been dealing with liver problems for nearly 30 years. Every six months, he would go to Saint Luke’s to see his hepatologist, John Helzberg, MD, and get an abdominal ultrasound of his liver. Year after year, he got the “all is well,” and wondered if he really needed to keep up with the checkups. 

But in the spring of 2022, his abdominal ultrasound was abnormal. Dr. Helzberg ordered an MRI scan. 

“On Easter, Dr. Helzberg called me on the holiday to personally tell me what they found,” Matt said. “The MRI confirmed it was liver cancer, which of course, was very emotional.”

Dr. Helzberg and Jennifer Buckley, MD, an interventional radiologist at Saint Luke’s, determined the isolated tumor could be treated with an advanced procedure. Dr. Buckley performed a transarterial chemoembolization (TACE), which is a minimally invasive procedure to restrict a tumor’s blood supply and inject chemotherapy drugs into the tumor, followed by microwave ablation, destroying the tumor with heat.

Although the procedure was successful, Dr. Helzberg explained the likelihood of the cancer returning. And if it did, another tumor—or tumors—might not be as treatable. A liver transplant was the safest way to prevent recurrence.

“I am extremely fond of Matt and have gotten to know him well since he started seeing me in 2011,” Dr. Helzberg said. “In patients with cirrhosis, the finding of cancer indicates the entire liver may be at risk for developing additional cancers, which is why we recommend liver transplantation.”

Matt decided to move forward with the process to be placed on the transplant waiting list. 

More than 100,000 people are on the transplant waiting list at any given time for a life-saving organ transplant, but only about 40,000 transplants are able to happen each year with the number of available organs.

Livers are allocated to the sickest of patients first. Since Matt was relatively healthy, he was placed lower on the list for the first six months, while he was under evaluation.

After that, Matt was told it could be another eight months to a year before he got a liver transplant. But just one month later, he got the call from the transplant team—there was a match.

He quickly called his adult children to help him decide if he should take it.

“I called the woman back and told her I played the Powerball for about 30 years and haven’t ever won, so I don’t think I should try my odds to win a battle with cancer,” Matt said. “So, I decided to take it.”

Saint Luke’s transplant surgeons Lee Cummings, MD, and Matthew Wilkinson, MD, PhD, performed his transplant surgery on January 24, 2023. The surgery was a success.

“After the surgery, Dr. Helzberg would check on me every day—and when he couldn’t make it in person, he would call,” Matt said. “The whole transplant team is just remarkable. I can’t say enough about them.”

After recovering in the hospital for a couple weeks, Matt returned home. Less than three months after having the major surgery, he went on a fishing trip to South Dakota to celebrate life. 

Matt says his two grandkids are his top motivation for staying healthy for many years to come and give him much more to look forward to.

“It’s amazing the person who donated their liver had the kindness to do that,” Matt said. “The relief of knowing I don’t have to worry about my liver cancer coming back is just tremendous.” 

Learn more about how you can sign up to become an organ donor to help others like Matt.