Anibal Torres: Coping With Advanced Liver Cancer Thanks to Research

Age: 66Humacao, Puerto Rico

It was Cinco de Mayo (May 5), 2022. Anibal will never forget the day. He woke up with severe pain in his stomach. He could barely eat anything over the next three days. On Sunday, which happened to be Mother’s Day, Anibal took his wife and daughter to celebrate at a seafood restaurant. “They were worried about me because they were eating, but I wasn’t. I was still in pain. I made a promise to them. I was going to the hospital on Monday,” Anibal said. After the checkup the doctor told Anibal to go to the hospital right away and get a CT scan. “I was there till about two o’clock in the morning and the doctor came out and said you have a big mass in your liver, and you have to go to a gastroenterologist as soon as possible,” he remembers.

At the time, Anibal did not think much about his condition. He gave his daughter Michelle the CD with all the results. “And she called me crying. She said, ‘Dad, how come you didn’t tell me you have cancer?’” But he didn’t know. While he was told that he had an 11.9 centimeter mass in his liver, Anibal did not realize that it was malignant. His doctor said that it was the biggest mass they had ever seen. Michelle took Anibal to a doctor at San Juan. They performed a biopsy of his liver, which confirmed his diagnosis of liver cancer.

Michelle assured her father that they would do everything they could to take care of him. “I promised him we are going to find the best doctors on the island.” A referral from Dr. Marcia Cruz-Correa, the Director of University of Puerto Rico Comprehensive Cancer Center at the time, led Anibal to PanOncology Trials. After his doctor talked to him about a clinical trial that was evaluating immunotherapy for patients with hepatocellular carcinoma, a form of liver cancer, Anibal decided to participate. “I said I’m going to go for it. I signed the papers [for the clinical trial] quickly. I told them I want to stay alive and start as soon as possible,” he recalled.

Anibal is aware of the high costs associated with his treatments. “It’s very expensive. I cannot afford it without this clinical trial,” he said, thanking all the researchers who are involved in the study. Michelle was happy that her father opted for the treatment. “I’m glad that he went for it because he was in denial, and he was tired. He would tell us that he was going to give up. I had a 10-year-old son at the time. He and my daughter love my dad. And I said, you must go to their graduation. We need you. And thank God he tried,” Michelle said reflecting on her father’s journey.

Even though the treatments caused several side effects including GI and kidney issues, Anibal has been feeling better since starting the clinical trial. “I’m eating better, I’m sleeping better, I’m doing everything better. I meditate every day, and I’m grateful for living every day. I tell everybody to be happy and thankful for every day,” he said. Every 6 weeks he gets CT scans to monitor the mass. And his tumor has been shrinking. “They tell me how the liver mass is going down. And I’m very grateful that from 11.9 it is down to 4.3 centimeters this week. The treatment is working. Look at me. I’m living proof,” he added.

Anibal’s message to his community and friends is to eat well, exercise, and avoid unhealthy foods and alcohol as much as they can. To other cancer patients he wants to share hope and prayers. He urges researchers to continue working on clinical trials, especially those that can benefit minorities and those living outside mainland United States, “It is a challenge being a minority, especially living in Puerto Rico,” Michelle said. She wants to thank Congress and policymakers for funding the clinical trial program on the island. “We do advocate that this program keeps being funded because we have a lot of cancer in our communities in Puerto Rico.”