Warning: This article features an image of a large tumor that was in a patient's heart, and it may be disturbing. Discretion is advised.
A team of surgeons at Northwestern Medicine achieved a remarkable feat by skillfully extracting a football-sized cancerous tumor from Michael DiLillo's heart. Today, he is filled with gratitude for his second chance at life, thanks to this rare surgical success.
DiLillo, now 69, had been experiencing mild tightness in his chest for months, and despite doctors attributing it to aging, he remained skeptical.
“I was experiencing some chest issues — not severe or to the point where it limited my activity, but I knew something wasn’t quite right,” DiLillo told Northwestern Medicine. “When I got an appointment with Dr. Severino, he ordered tests and figured it out very quickly.”
Cardiologist Michael J. Severino called DiLillo right away and told him that a big mass was pressing into his heart and causing the symptoms, and he needed to go into the emergency room for more testing.
"I've been in practice almost 30 years, and I’ve never seen this type of tumor in this location,” said Severino. “When I saw the test results, I had to take a few minutes and decide how I was going to handle this because it was an earth-shattering result for the patient."
The tumor was growing and damaging DiLillo's heart, and surgery was the only chance he had at survival. However, because of how risky and complicated the procedure would be, he had a hard time finding someone to operate.
“No one wanted to do the surgery because they thought it was too risky. One surgeon said, ‘I can’t tell you with a clear conscience that you’ll survive surgery,’” said DiLillo. “I was scared beyond belief. I told [my wife] Marianne that we needed to put our financial house in order. I thought I was going to die.”
But a miracle happened when Dr. Christopher K. Mehta, a cardiac surgeon at Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute, stepped in to help.
“I’ve seen a handful of these tumors, and this was by far the most aggressive-appearing cancer, especially from what we could tell from the imaging and the echocardiogram,” said Mehta. “The sheer size of the tumor, which was the size of a football, was causing it to invade the structures of the heart, which made it particularly challenging to deal with.”
The team ended up operating for 12 hours.
Mehta explained that the tumor had invaded and compressed the pulmonary valve and artery and was blocking blood flow from the heart to the lungs. Once they removed the tumor, they had to reconstruct the heart so DiLillo could live a normal life.
The tumor weighed more than 1.5 pounds, which is, according to Northwestern Medicine, double the weight of an average heart and was completely covering DiLillo's heart.
Northwestern Medicine explains that heart tumors, especially malignant ones, are extremely rare; less than 10% of heart tumors are cancerous, and they affect around 8,000 people worldwide. In contrast, breast cancer affects over 240,000 people annually in the United States alone.
While his recovery has been intense, and of course very long, DiLillo was able to celebrate his birthday and the holidays with his family, getting a little stronger every day.
“You get a whole new perspective in how important every day is – you don’t want to waste time, you don’t know how much time you have,” said DiLillo. “I have a second lease on life. I feel blessed that we found the right people who could help us. Dr. Severino found it when others said I was fine. Dr. Mehta took it on when others said, ‘I can’t help you.’ Northwestern saved my life.”
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