Meet the ‘magic man’: Surgeon’s demeanor, outlook help patient beat slim odds

Colorectal surgeon Jiri Bem, MD, talks with his patient Billie Downey. Downey has follow-up appointments with him close to her home in Clayton. (photo by Susan Kahn)

Colorectal surgeon Jiri Bem, MD, talks with his patient Billie Downey. Downey has follow-up appointments with him close to her home in Clayton. (photo by Susan Kahn)

BY AMBER SMITH

Melanoma of the rectum is rare and aggressive, and its prognosis is poor. The majority of people with the diagnosis don’t survive more than 24 months.

To Jeri Bem, MD, that’s no reason to give up.

A 59-year-old woman from Clayton was having pain when she had bowel movements. She went for a colonoscopy. That screening revealed melanoma of the rectum. Her doctor sent her to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

Doctors there were reluctant to operate, recalls Billie Downey. “They pretty much said I had more than a 98 percent chance of dying. So, I went to Upstate, and I just liked the people there better.”

That was in 2011. Downey is 66 today. She defied the odds. She survived melanoma of the rectum.

“He’s definitely my magic man,” she says in crediting Bem, her colorectal surgeon at Upstate.

When she returned from New York City, Downey underwent three months of chemotherapy at Upstate to shrink the tumor. Then her oncologist made an appointment with Bem, who sees patients in Alexandria Bay every two weeks.

Bem knew Downey’s situation was dire. The surgery she needed — an extensive oncological resection — would be challenging, and it might not work.

But it might.

If they decided to take the chance, they might see amazing results.

Downey says Bem told her the same thing the doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering did regarding survival odds. Bem was straight with her. It would be a major surgery, with no guarantee of success. The tumor was in a bad spot, and it was growing. To remove it would mean removing her rectum. She likely would be in intensive care for a week, and it would take several weeks for her to heal. He would be willing to try to help her, if she wanted him to.

“He was more hopeful,” Downey remembers. “The tone of his voice is very comforting, too.”

She went ahead with the surgery. As predicted, recovery took a while. She learned about her ostomy, which would take over the functions of her rectum. “You learn it, and you accept it, and you just move on.”

That was 6½ years ago. Downey remains free of cancer. She sees Bem once a year.

HealthLink on Air logoCancer Care magazine spring 2018 coverThis article appears in the spring 2018 issue of Cancer Care magazine. Hear a podcast/radio interview where Bem tells what people need to know about colorectal cancer and its prevention.

 

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