For his 10th turn at running the Los Angeles Marathon, Phil Shin did not want to race against the clock. This was his opportunity to enjoy the course, run with friends — and run without cancer.
The South Pasadena resident and lifelong runner had been living with a diagnosis of liver cancer until a generous friend and the experts at the USC Transplant Institute at Keck Medicine of USC stepped in to provide Phil with a living-donor liver transplant. The March 8 race, “from the stadium to the sea,” marked nearly six months to the day from that life-changing procedure.
“I wanted to make this race a wonderful experience, to run cancer free and prove to myself — and inspire others that are going through the transplant journey — that you can do more than you think you’re capable of doing,” Phil said.
Annual checkups save lives
Phil’s journey started when an annual physical in January 2018 resulted in a cancer diagnosis. Since he felt like he was in peak form, it felt surreal to be told he had a tumor the size of a golf ball, and that he was being referred to Keck Medicine’s Navpreet Kaur, MD, a hepatobiliary, pancreas and transplant surgeon.
Because of his physical condition and medical history, Dr. Kaur was confident in recommending a liver resection, where a portion of Phil’s liver would be removed. Less than two months after the May procedure, Phil was back on the track, running for recovery and for a marathon in October. During that race he fulfilled a lifelong dream: qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Phil felt even better than before the diagnosis — so it was a shock to get called back to Keck Medicine and be told that his liver “had become a tumor factory.”
“I was doing everything right, taking care of myself, being active, and yet it still came back,” Phil remembered.
A plea to friends
Because the new tumor was caught early, Phil faced a common dilemma among patients who need organ transplants in high-demand areas. While he was not sick enough to be high on the list of recipients, waiting for a liver transplant with the cancer continuing to grow in his body seemed impossible. So when the Keck Medicine surgeons floated the idea of a living-donor liver transplant, it took a lot of reflection before Phil would agree to let his sister email their family and friends asking for volunteers in January of 2019.
The liver transplant team at Keck Medicine is among the leaders in the field: the program is one of the pioneering centers in the country for living-donor liver transplantation, in which a donor donates a portion of his or her own liver. The program successfully performed the first live donor transplant between adults in Southern California and performed the world’s first adult-to-adult live donor transplantation without a blood transfusion.
As the call went out for potential living donors, Phil continued to run marathons — qualifying twice more for the Boston Marathon — and keeping in touch with family and friends. One group chat in particular helped keep his spirits up, with two friends he’d known for more than 20 years. One day, Portland, Oregon resident Mark Murphy asked about Phil’s status with the liver transplant.
“That came out of the blue because that chat had never been about my diagnosis,” Phil said. “Unbeknownst to me, Mark had submitted himself as a candidate and he is about the same body type, height, weight, blood type and our birthdays are even a week apart. He was considered the top candidate.”
The surprising news that Mark would be donating a portion of his liver to Phil kicked off a whirlwind of emotions — and three weeks later, both were in the operating room at Keck Hospital of USC, undergoing a procedure that would bond them forever.
Back on the road
The recovery process was relatively smooth for both Mark and Phil, thanks to the efforts of Phil’s community, who had offered Mark a place to stay across the street, loaned him the use of a car for the duration of his recovery and provided a never-ending stream of emotional support to Phil and his family.
Phil also found support through the USC Transplant Patient, Family and Caregivers Support Group, which meets monthly and brings together transplant patients and their loved ones, at all stages of their journey.
“Doctors are knowledgeable but none of them have gone through the emotional warfare of a cancer diagnosis and needing a transplant,” Phil said.
And nearly six months to the day after the Sept. 11 transplant, Phil was running down Sunset Boulevard in his 10th Los Angeles Marathon. At the halfway point, Mark was able to join him so they could cross the finish line together. As Phil continues his recovery, he plans to keep running — and is looking forward to September, when he can finally participate in the Boston Marathon.
“The Boston Marathon was rescheduled to, basically, the one-year anniversary of my liver transplant, so I’m looking forward to running the best race I can,” Phil said.
— Melissa Masatani