A surprising diagnosis leads to treatment for Liam’s liver cancer

liam with his head shaved after treatment for liver cancer
A biopsy confirmed that Liam had HCC, a rare and aggressive form of liver cancer that typically affects teenagers and young adults.

For Liam Dickerson, what started as a simple sick day turned into a journey he never could have expected. In 2018, he wasn’t feeling well and paid a visit to his high school’s nurse. Although he was experiencing chest and under arm pain, the nurse worried that he might have appendicitis and recommended he see a doctor for an ultrasound.

Her suggestion confused Liam, but he followed her advice. The result came as a shock: Liam didn’t have appendicitis — but he did have a large mass on his liver. 

A rare diagnosis

Liam’s doctor referred him to a larger hospital near his home in Connecticut. Although Liam and his parents worried that the mass might be cancer, nothing revealing showed up on further laboratory testing, leading clinicians to believe that the tumor was benign.

“They told us that hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is so rare that we shouldn’t even worry about it,” Liam remembers.

Yet a biopsy confirmed the worst: Liam did have HCC, a rare and aggressive form of liver cancer that typically affects teenagers and young adults.  His particular type of HCC was called fibrolamellar carcinoma.

Liam in the hospital for liver cancer treatment
Liam in the hospital for liver cancer treatment

Coming to Boston

Concerned about the rarity of HCC and his doctors’ exposure to this disease, Liam’s family decided to research other options. Liam’s aunt, who had previously had cancer, recommended contacting Dr. Heung Bae Kim, the surgeon who had helped treat her. Among his other roles, Dr. Kim plays a pivotal role in the Liver Tumor Center care team at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.

“We were already traveling to Boston for appointments at the Joslin Diabetes Center,” says Liam, who also has type 1 diabetes. Confident that the trip would be worth it, his parents decided to transfer his care to Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s.

Getting through treatment

Once in Boston, Liam learned that he would need surgery, followed by chemotherapy. From the start, he met not only with Dr. Kim, but also Dr. Allison O’Neill, director of the Liver Tumor Center, and her team. While treatment wasn’t a pleasant experience, Liam took it in stride.  What made treatment a little easier was Liam’s large support system of family and friends, along with his penchant for dark humor.

“I knew I was doing everything I could to get better,” he says. “It was hard for my family and my girlfriend, but I knew I just had to do my best.”

Liam and his girlfriend pose in formal wear after his treatment for liver cancer
Liam and his girlfriend

Looking to the future

Today, Liam is navigating life as a 20-year-old cancer survivor. On a break from college, he’s looking for a job and recently taught himself to drive a car with a manual transmission. Once an avid fencer, he’s not ready to return to that type of exercise. “Chemo kind of affected my ankles,” he admits. “Sometimes I feel like an old man in a kid’s body.”

Despite the challenges, Liam is grateful that his school nurse sent him for that ultrasound. And he’s looking forward to the future: Two years out from treatment, he’s officially cancer free.

Learn more about the Liver Tumor Center.

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