MC student overcomes stage 4 liver cancer, takes one day at a timeMarch 21, 2024

The image to use for this article. Listing image managed through RSS tab. Marcus Avila

In 2019, Marcus Avila was 27 years old and enjoying life.  He and his wife Karyna had a beautiful one-year-old baby boy named MJ (Marcus Junior).  He was employed fulltime at Hillard Office Solutions as a service technician, and he was a parttime student at Midland College (MC) taking courses toward a credential in Cyber Security and Network Administration.  He never dreamed that his life would take a dramatic turn a few months later when he was diagnosed with stage 4 fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma (FLC).  A tumor the size of a football was growing in his liver and spreading to other organs.

After being on palliative care at MD Anderson, enduring extensive chemotherapy and undergoing two surgeries that included a partial liver resection, removal of his gall bladder, spleen and parts of his lungs and diaphragm, Avila is now enjoying life with his family, has resumed his job at Hilliard and is continuing his studies at MC.

“It truly is a miracle that I’m alive today!” Avila exclaimed.  “I waited too long to go to a doctor when I first started having symptoms.  There came a time when I couldn’t get out of bed and was sweating profusely.  My skin had turned yellow.  Through a series of events, a biopsy of my liver was sent to the Mayo Clinic, and I was diagnosed with FLC, a rare liver cancer that affects only about one in five million people in the U.S. each year.  

“My oncologist in Midland recommended that I get my affairs in order, and he referred me to MD Anderson in Houston without much hope.  The specialists at MD Anderson said that the tumor was too large and encompassed too many vital organs for surgery to be an option.  So, they referred me for hospice care and said that perhaps there was a slim chance that a new clinical trial might shrink the tumor.  I figured I had nothing to lose, so I started the trial which involved a combination of immunotherapy and aggressive chemotherapy.  Within a year, the tumor had shrunk enough for surgery to be possible.  After eight hours on the operating table, I came out with less organs, but I was alive!”

Avila explained that fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma is a rare liver cancer that usually develops in teens and adults under 40 years old.  This type of cancer is different than other types of liver cancer because it happens in people who have healthy livers.  Other liver cancers tend to grow in people with livers that have been damaged by alcohol/drug abuse or viral infections.  FLC is the result of a chromosomal mutation and is thought to make up 1 to 5 percent of all liver cancers.  

“I was always relatively healthy growing up,” Avila said.  “That’s probably why I waited so long to go to a doctor when I first started having symptoms.”

Avila was born and raised in Midland.  He attended Ben Milam Elementary School, San Jacinto Junior High and Midland High School until he dropped out and joined the workforce.

“I thought I knew it all!” he said.  “I worked at a carwash and then for my dad who was a general contractor, but I was living paycheck to paycheck and often coming up short at the end of the month.  So, in 2016 I obtained my GED® [high school equivalency diploma].  From there, I started working at Hilliard and enrolled at Midland College.”

The oldest of six siblings, Avila is the first person in his family to attend college.

“I wanted to be an example for my brothers and sisters, as well as my son, so there was no way I was going to let cancer keep me from getting a degree!”  he stated.  “However, I couldn’t have done it without the wonderful support of people who God put in my path, some of them complete strangers.”

The first person to offer assistance was his employer Brent Hilliard who kept him on the payroll for the year that Avila was participating in the clinical trial.  

“I was connected to the drugs through an IV bag in a fanny pack that I carried day and night,” Avila explained.  “The medicine flowed through a port in my chest.  It made me extremely ill, and there was no way I could maintain my job.  Mr. Hilliard said not to worry.  He continued to pay my salary, keep me on company health insurance and even gave me some extra money to help with expenses while we were in Houston. “

Additional support came through the social workers at MD Anderson who arranged for Avila to be part of Angel Flights, a non-profit charitable organization of pilots who volunteer to transport cancer patients and others to medical appointments.  

“During the clinical trial, I had to travel to Houston every two weeks,” Avila said.  “At first, my family and friends would take me by car, but that trip was long, especially for someone who is suffering from the effects of chemotherapy.  When the social workers put me in touch with Angel Flights, one of their pilots called me up and said ‘tell me a little about yourself.’  I explained my circumstances, and then he offered to pay out of his own pocket for commercial flights for all my trips to Houston and wanted nothing in exchange.  

“For many of the trips to Houston, my wife and son were able to go with me, so we just made them into mini family vacations.  I figured that there was no use feeling sorry for myself, and why not be able to enjoy the time with my family.”

After his treatments and surgery, the cancer was in remission for almost a year.  A few months ago, during a routine checkup and MRI, physicians noticed a few spots returning on his liver, and Avila is now taking oral chemotherapy, but said the side effects are much more manageable than his previous treatment.  He also developed insulin-dependent diabetes as a result of the treatments, but said that he has learned to live with these minor obstacles.

Avila continues to work at Hilliard Office Solutions and said that he gets pleasure out of going to work.  He enjoys his job as a service technician because it allows him to meet other people.

“For example, one of our clients is MISD,” he said.  “The teachers and staff whom I meet when I’m on a call at a school are truly genuine people who care about others.  Every day they are selflessly educating and caring for our children.  They are part of what makes my job great.”

He also continues to pursue his coursework at Midland College with the goal of obtaining an Associate of Applied Science degree and then pursuing a bachelor’s degree in either Information Technology or Psychology.

“Everyone at Midland College is so supportive,” he said.  “Meredith Walker in the Scholarships Office helped me obtain the Midland Northside Lions Club Scholarship, and through that affiliation, I’ve gotten to know some of the great men who are Lions Club members.  Then, there’s Joe Bontke who teaches most of my computer courses .  He is awesome, and I’ve learned so much from him.”

In his spare time, Avila enjoys playing video games and cooking.

“I take one day at a time,” he concluded.  “During the past five years, I’ve discovered that God is behind the scenes orchestrating everything and putting wonderful people in my path.  Every day is an opportunity to live like it’s my last day!”  

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