Advance with MUSC Health

One Man’s Alarming Cancer Saga Gets a Happy Ending

Advance With MUSC Health
April 10, 2023
A Mike Bieda with two other smiling people outside at a baseball field.
Mike, Mary and their grandson, Jack Bieda, March 2023

Mike Bieda, 72, was living the retirement dream in South Carolina’s Lowcountry.

After putting in 35 years with the Maryland State Police, he had landed a part-time gig at a Hilton Head golf course where he could play the links for free.

Driving golf carts and hoisting golf bags were a welcome contrast to flying medevac helicopters and transporting accident victims to Maryland’s biggest trauma centers.

But in May 2018, when he was on an Alaskan cruise with his wife, Mary, Bieda’s energy and zest for life plummeted.

“I got really exhausted, and I wasn’t like my normal self,” he says. “By July, when I visited my mother in Mississippi, I couldn’t stop coughing. My cough was so bad that I couldn’t even carry on a conversation.”

A Kidney Cancer Diagnosis

His local doctor diagnosed him with severe anemia. “He said everything else was fine and to take two iron tablets daily and to come back in a month,” Bieda says.

The tablets had no effect. Bieda felt worse; his energy level and his spirits were still low, and his heart rate had crept up to more than 100 beats per minute.

When his daughter, Holly Edgerton, a pediatric ER nurse at MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital, came to visit, she was shocked by her father’s condition.

“She told me I looked awful,” Bieda says. “She said, ‘Dad, we’re gonna take a ride. Let’s go to my hospital,’ and she drove me to MUSC in Charleston.”

After three days of tests and a blood transfusion, hematologist Dr. Charles S. Greenberg confirmed the anemia diagnosis and gave him a worrisome message: “He pointed out that my hand was gray and said, ‘You’ve got a problem; your color should be the same as mine. You’re bleeding internally somewhere; we haven’t located the source yet.”

For three days, Bieda, his energy boosted by the transfusion, felt like “his old self.” Within the week, however, after alarming urinary tract problems and another battery of tests and scans at MUSC Health, he had a new diagnosis: cancer in his left kidney.

A Kidney Cancer Treatment Plan

He met with Dr. Theodore Gourdin, an oncologist with expertise in genitourinary cancer, at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, for more than three hours to learn his treatment options.
“Dr. Gourdin explained everything to me about my cancer and answered every question I had. He told me I didn’t qualify for a clinical trial because I had an autoimmune disorder and said surgery was my only option.”

Bieda’s daughter, Holly, arranged for him to meet with Dr. Robert Grubb, an MUSC Health urologist who specializes in cancer and genitourinary cancer.

“The first time I met Dr. Grubb, I immediately trusted him and felt comfortable with him. He was smart and knew what he was doing,” Bieda says.

Bieda’s surgery was set for 9 a.m. on Dec. 17. The procedure was expected to be laparoscopic and last three to four hours.

When he woke up after the surgery, the first thing he saw was the time on a nearby clock: 10:15 a.m. “I figured the cancer was so bad that they had just sewn me up and were sending me home to die.”

An 11-Hour Kidney Cancer Surgery

Turns out, Bieda was only half right. The cancer was bad, all right. He was on a ventilator and in the ICU. But the date was Dec. 18, more than 24 hours since Dr. Grubb had begun the surgery, which had stretched to 11 hours.

Instead of sending Bieda home to die, a team of doctors from multiple disciplines had answered Dr. Grubb’s urgent call for assistance in what turned out to be a complex, lifesaving procedure.
The tumor, clear cell carcinoma, had encapsulated Bieda’s kidney; it had grown and wrapped itself around his vena cava, the largest vein in the body. Doctors had to open the vena cava to remove the cancer.

“Vascular, transplant, urology and thoracic doctors all participated in my surgery to save my life,” Bieda says. “I was given 10 units of blood and went through four anesthesiologists. Every doctor I saw while I was recovering told me, ‘I was in on your surgery.’”

Cancer Surgery Recovery

A week later, at 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Bieda was discharged, but his recovery was anything but a holiday.

“My surgery was lifesaving, but the recovery was tough,” he says. “I was told I shouldn’t have survived. I had tubes coming out of my neck and a central line, and I felt awful. In Maryland, I had flown people in this condition, and I knew I was very fortunate to have the MUSC doctors taking care of me.”

In January, a CAT scan revealed a lymphatic leak near the surgical site. Doctors put in another drain to take off the fluid and put him on high-dose antibiotics and a fat-free diet. Bieda rallied.

A Smart Move — to Charleston

By April, he was able to return home to Bluffton cancer-free, but Holly had a warning for him. “She told me I’d had Stage 4 metastatic cancer, and that it wasn’t ‘if’ but ‘when’ my cancer would return,” he says. “That’s when Mary and I decided to move to the Charleston area to be near my MUSC doctors and our daughter and son-in-law.”

Holly’s words were prophetic. By December of that year, Bieda’s cancer had returned — this time in his liver. Once again, he met with Dr. Gourdin, and once again, Dr. Gourdin answered every question, patiently and thoroughly, that Bieda, Mary and his son-in-law, an MUSC physician assistant, asked. Dr. Gourdin prescribed a six-month regimen of oral chemotherapy. The chemo shrank the tumors, but Bieda felt wretched. He developed pneumonia.

“I had no quality of life; I told my family I couldn’t handle this and that I wanted to give up,” he says.

That summer in 2020, Dr. Gourdin recommended a two-year regimen of immunotherapy. At the conclusion of his treatment in July 2022, Bieda’s scans showed that his cancer had disappeared.
“It took me almost five months after treatment to feel really good, and today, nearly three years later, I feel great – like my old self,” he says.

Good Fortune: A Cancer Recovery Thanks to MUSC Hollings Cancer Center

He recently joined his golf partners and played nine holes at his favorite course, and he never misses an opportunity to sing the praises of his doctors and nurses at MUSC.

“Time and again, I think about how fortunate I was to have the doctors and the nurses I had at the time. The nurses on 6th East were fantastic and attentive. One nurse even helped me find the football game I was looking for on the TV. And Dr. Grubb saved my life. I love that man so much. He didn’t just come to my room for a quick checkup; he would sit and have real conversations with me about topics other than my condition.”

Bieda says he would tell anyone considering MUSC Health for treatment to go there.

“The doctors at MUSC work as a team, and that’s important. I trust them completely. Dr. Gourdin is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. I’ve been to big-name hospitals in other metropolitan areas, and I can say I never saw anything that matches the care and personal touch that I received at MUSC. They see you as an actual person — not just as patient.”

Bieda says his experience has left him feeling more spiritual and grateful. “I learned I have a lot to be thankful for. I had all the doctors in the right place at the right time.

“How fortunate am I?

How blessed am I?”