3D vision
3D model of tumour

The 3D model of Savchuk’s tumour that doctors used to prepare for surgery.

How a printed model of a tumour helped doctors save a man’s life

When Eduard Savchuk went to see his family doctor with complaints of an increasingly hoarse voice last year, he had no inkling there was a massive tumour inside his chest. The 56-year-old electrician from Newmarket, Ont. had no pain, felt no unusual pressure and wasn’t experiencing any obvious organ failure. Like most of us, he – and, initially, his doctor – assumed his loss of voice was the result of a run-of-the-mill virus or a simple problem with his vocal cords that would pass on its own.

Not only did Savchuk’s voice not repair itself, but by the summer of 2019, he couldn’t speak at all and had to rely on his wife to make phone calls for him. After a return trip to his GP’s office, Savchuk was sent for diagnostic scans, which revealed a four-kilogram cancerous tumour entwined around his heart and airway. The tumour compressed the nerve to his voice box – an ominous sign.

“I didn’t know about the tumour at all,” Savchuk says. “I couldn’t understand how such a big mass could exist inside my body when I didn’t feel anything. It was so strange to me, to have what I had inside of me, wrapped around my heart.”

Making the impossible possible

Savchuk went through a round of chemotherapy, which didn’t shrink the tumour. His local oncology team decided it was too large and too close to his organs to remove safely. Thinking there was little to be done other than to keep Savchuk comfortable as the tumour slowly took his life, in a last-ditch effort, his doctors referred the case to Dr. Shaf Keshavjee, UHN’s Surgeon-in-Chief and the James Wallace McCutcheon Chair in Surgery, who is known for making seemingly impossible operations possible.

Even for a surgeon with Dr. Keshavjee’s vast experience, Savchuk’s tumour was challenging. Shaped sort of like a Mickey Mouse head, the tumour had “ears” that wrapped behind and pressed into the heart, and interfered with both his airway and his aorta. Dr. Keshavjee knew the tumour would be fatal if it went untreated, but he also didn’t want to go into surgery if he wasn’t confident the procedure would work. He could see the general placement of the tumour through CT and MRI scans, but they didn’t give him enough critical spatial information to determine if he could operate safely.

“It was already starting to obstruct his heart and his vena cava. So he was slowly dying,” recalls Dr. Keshavjee, explaining that while the tumour was growing slowly, the pressure was becoming more than Savchuk’s organs could withstand. “Even though he didn’t feel sick, there was this huge thing inside of him, literally the size of his head.”