• Cancer

    Sharing Mayo Clinic: Outdoorsman Lives Life to the Fullest After Liver Transplant

Steve and Maria Woodford are back to active lifestyles after transplant and cancer care at Mayo Clinic.Being diagnosed with bile duct cancer that eventually necessitated a liver transplant wasn't enough to keep Steve Woodford down for long. A South African native living in Utah, Steve is professional skydiving instructor, backpacker and canyon guide in Zion National Park. He has always lived on the edge with his active outdoors lifestyle. Getting sick unexpectedly during a backpacking trip to Belize two years ago seemed like just another challenge he had to overcome.

"My wife and I had just arrived in Belize to do some backpacking and visit the Mayan ruins, when I woke up itching, and noticed a yellow tint to my eyes and skin," Steve says. "I saw a local doctor for a blood test, urine test and ultrasound, and was told I had hepatitis C and needed to go straight home for immediate treatment. Little did I know what was to come after returning home to Utah." 

Back home, Steve was evaluated by a gastroenterologist and diagnosed with bile duct cancer, rather than hepatitis C, in February 2014. He was told the cancer was inoperable and incurable. He was put on chemotherapy, underwent radiation therapy, and had a stent inserted in his bile duct, in an unsuccessful attempt to solve a drainage problem. He then had a stent inserted into the liver to drain fluid to an external bag.

A referral to a transplant center in Salt Lake City proved to be Steve's lucky break.

There, Michael Charlton, M.D., a gastroenterologist and former Mayo Clinic physician, told Steve he would need a liver transplant to survive. Although Steve was placed on the waiting list in Utah for a liver transplant, the wait time in that region would be one to two years, and it was doubtful he'd survive long enough to get the organ he needed.

Steve's doctor recommended he contact Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, to see if he could be evaluated and listed there, since the wait time for a donor liver might be shorter in the Southeast.

After a thorough evaluation by the transplant team at Mayo Clinic's Florida campus, Steve was placed on the liver transplant list in Florida. He and his wife, Maria, packed up their RV and temporarily moved to Jacksonville to be near Mayo Clinic, where he continued treatment as he awaited a new liver.

"Mayo Clinic saved both of our lives within weeks of each other. It was truly a miracle of timing and great care." - Steve Woodford

That move turned out to be a good one for both of them.

"While we were in Jacksonville undergoing treatment and awaiting my new liver, my wife had a routine mammogram, which ended up detecting a tumor in her breast," Steve says. "After a biopsy confirmed her breast cancer diagnosis, she underwent surgery on Christmas Eve 2014 and began radiation therapy. We were a bit shocked that both of us got sick at the same time, but remained confident we'd both beat our illnesses."

Less than two weeks after his wife's breast cancer surgery and after being listed for a donor liver for five months, Steve received his new liver on Jan. 8, 2015.

"Mayo Clinic saved both of our lives within weeks of each other," Steve says. "It was truly a miracle of timing and great care."

Four months after the transplant, Steve and Maria hitched up their fifth-wheel trailer and set out to visit the five states in the U.S. they not yet visited. Almost 8,000 miles and four months later, they have now been in 49 States after visiting Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota. Along the way, Steve had surgery at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus for a bilateral hernia, which put him back three months in his plan to resume skydiving. He did his first jump since his transplant in October 2015, instead of July as he'd planned.

Now, a year after Maria's breast cancer surgery and Steve's liver transplant, both are doing well and have mostly resumed their active outdoors lifestyles. In fact, Steve attempted a world-record night skydive in Arizona over the 2015 Thanksgiving holiday, with 52 jumpers participating in the event. He has already done more than 80 jumps since his surgery a year ago.

"Maria is doing great, and I've mostly resumed my outdoors activities as I had done before, other than a little less stamina and a bit of lingering joint pain relating to the eight months of chemotherapy I underwent," Steve says. "But I'm grateful for recovering as well as I have, and credit my Mayo Clinic surgeons, doctors and nurses for the wonderful care they gave to both me and my wife."