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3rd November 2015

How pig skin helped a cancer survivor find a new life

Prostate cancer, hernias, multiple surgeries, and a stoma: Tony was alive, but his quality of life was suffering. That’s when his surgeon came to him with an idea. He would reconstruct Tony’s abdominal wall… using pig skin.

Tony’s biopsy results did not look good: he had prostate cancer. “I went outside, sat on the steps and cried,” he recalls. “I had been diagnosed with diabetes the year before and this was not the news I needed to hear.”

A retired engineer, Tony decided to have his prostate removed, and spent the next year recovering. As he began to feel better, he found out he had two hernias. “I had these repaired and everything seemed to be well again,” he says. “Until that terrible Monday morning came along and everything changed.”

That Monday morning, he remembers, was after a weekend away with his wife, Margaret. After they returned home, he woke up and felt what he thought was indigestion. “I stood up and immediately I fell down like a sack of potatoes onto the ground… I was in a lot of pain.” Margaret phoned an ambulance and Tony was rushed to a hospital. “I can remember seeing doctors and going into a scanner. I woke up 3 days later in intensive care. I didn’t know what had happened to me,” says Tony. Margaret gave him the news that he had an ischemic bowel and needed to have a stoma.

Stoma surgery creates a small opening on the surface of the abdomen, in order to divert the flow of faeces and/or urine. It is estimated that over 13,500 people undergo stoma surgery each year only in the USA.

The stoma was hard for Tony to get used to. “I just couldn’t get past how my life had changed,” he says. His outlook grew dim quickly, and he was prescribed anti-depressant medication.

Luckily for Tony, his surgeon had a more optimistic outlook He gave him three options: 1) he could leave Tony as he was, which means Tony would most probably spend the rest of his life on anti-depressants; 2) he could fix Tony’s hernias and leave the stoma, too; or 3) he could try an abdominal reconstruction and remove the stoma. “When he said that I could have jumped six feet in the air!” says Tony. “It was like he took a weight off my shoulders; it was a relief to know something could be done for me.”

The abdominal reconstruction surgery took nearly 6 hours. The surgeon delicately performed a hernia graft using connective tissue from pigs’ intestinal linings. The result created a strong repair without the use of a permanent material. “I always thought that it was going to be there for life, holding me together, but the graft acts as a scaffold,” explains Tony. “It gives the muscles a chance to heal and re-connect. The muscles and the tissues heal through the scaffold and it eventually becomes part of you.”

Now, Tony has a new perspective on life. “The biggest difference is that now I look forward. Even at my age I look forward,” he says. “I’m 66 and I’m happily looking forward to spending time with my wife and grandchildren for many years to come.”