Rev. Joe Mitchell Joe Mitchell

First post: Feb 19, 2021 Latest post: Jun 17, 2022
Over the course of 2020, Joe went from being a perfectly healthy and active priest in his mid-30s, with no prior medical history, to experiencing severe bouts of abdominal pain in March and April, right around the time that the COVID-19 pandemic hit. This eventually led to a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis in May, and the removal of a very inflamed gallbladder in June.  While his pain subsided, and his colitis became manageable with medication, further inspection of Joe's bile ducts after surgery revealed some "abnormalities." After several more scans and tests, and two additional surgical procedures, Joe was finally diagnosed with very early Stage I bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma) in January 2021. 

Joe's particular form of cancer is caused by a rare autoimmune disease of the liver called primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), which sometimes occurs in people who have ulcerative colitis. No one knows what causes PSC, but it is understood to be genetic. Typically it is not detected until a person is in their late 40s or 50s, and while PSC can eventually lead to cancer, cirrhosis, and other liver and bile duct problems, it is extremely rare for cancer to develop this early, at the very onset of PSC. What's more, it is even rarer for any bile duct cancer to be detected at such an early stage - with no visible tumor or mass, and as far as we know, prior to any spread. PSC also normally shows up first in someone's liver numbers, after years of struggling with ulcerative colitis. As of right now, however, Joe's liver remains perfectly healthy and his numbers remain low. Joe's case is therefore exceedingly medically rare, on a number of levels. 

All of these factors actually work in Joe's favor, since there is a path for treatment that could effectively “cure” Joe of the PSC altogether, something that is usually not an option for people with this disease. Unfortunately, the treatment plan will require him to undergo a full liver transplant, in addition to 6 weeks of chemo and radiation. The reason for this is that even though Joe's liver is perfectly healthy right now, there is no other way to prevent the PSC from progressing, and there is no way to ensure that this very aggressive form of cancer will not return and spread to his liver. So the entire system must be replaced. 

An amazing interdisciplinary team of research doctors at Duke Hospital have taken on Joe's case, and we were fortunate to learn that Duke just so happens to be one of the top 3 research hospitals in the country for understanding and dealing with PSC-related treatments and transplants. While Joe's path to healing and recovery will be long, the doctors are very confident based on what they are seeing right now that he will come out the other side of all this. 

His treatment plan will occur several phases over the course of the next year: 

Phase 1: Chemo/Radiation (March-April): Joe will undergo 6 weeks of chemotherapy and radiation, in order to eliminate the cancer cells in his bile duct, along with any rogue cancer cells in his GI area.

Phase 2: Scans/Tests & More Chemo (April-June): After radiation is complete, Joe will have several tests and procedures to determine whether all of the cancer cells have been eliminated. Once that is confirmed, Joe will become eligible to get on the transplant list. They estimate his wait time will be approximately 4 months. During that time, he will remain on chemotherapy in order to make sure that the cancer does not return while he awaits his new liver. He will also be working hard during this time to regain his strength, so that his body will be prepared for the transplant.

Phase 3: Liver Transplant (Fall/Winter 2021??): Joe will receive a full liver transplant, which will get rid of his PSC-infested liver and bile ducts, and replace them with a liver and bile ducts that are PSC and cancer free.  The surgery itself will last 12 hours, and he will be in the hospital for 7-14 days. The call that they have an organ match for him and he is ready to go for surgery could come literally at any time, so we have to be "on call" at all times of the day and night, prepared to drive to Duke at a moment's notice for transplant. We were also told that there could be several "false alarms," where for a variety of reasons, the organ ends up going to someone else. In other words, the date and time for this major surgery will be extremely unpredictable. 

Phase 4: Recovery Period (Winter/Spring 2022): immediately following the transplant surgery, we will need to temporarily relocate to Durham for 30-45 days while Joe undergoes a number of follow-up tests and procedures to make sure that his body is accepting the new organ. This will be followed by 2-5 additional months of 24/7 care and recovery time, while Joe's immune system adjusts to the new liver, and his body slowly regains its strength. I can be that we will probably need a lot of assistance during these months!

Please click "Follow" if you would like to receive the latest updates on Joe's condition.  Also, please be aware that this is a FREE website and we do NOT need your financial support to "keep this page up and running," so PLEASE DO NOT GIVE MONEY TO THIS WEBSITE!  CaringBridge does not need your financial help and I apologize for the deceptive and unethical ways that they will keep trying to solicit money. Unfortunately, this was the best platform for communicating our updates to everyone. 

If you would like to make a financial donation that will directly support us, you can find a PayPal link under "Ways to Help." If you want to make a donation to another organization in honor of Joe, you can also find a list of legitimate nonprofit organizations that actually DO need financial support by clicking here:

I will be providing updates through the "Journal" section about how Joe is doing and what sorts of help we need,  since this will change at different times as we move through the different phases of treatment. You can also sign up for days to pray for Joe on the "Planner" page, or leave a message for Joe in the "Well Wishes" section. 

Thank you all so much for your love and support. It means the world to us!!