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Airdrie community supports family's battle with rare liver cancer

A college student from Airdrie and his family are battling an extremely rare cancer diagnosis, but want to thank the community for the support they have received throughout the ordeal.

A college student from Airdrie and his family are battling an extremely rare cancer diagnosis, but want to thank the community for the support they have received throughout the ordeal.

Coopers Crossing resident Ryan Couling was diagnosed in April with Fibrolameller hepatocellular Carcininoma (FHC) – a rare form of liver cancer. According to his mother Lisa Gilling, FCH makes up less than one per cent of liver cancer diagnoses, and only 200 to 300 cases are identified globally each year.

“It was really hard to wrap our minds around that,” she said. “It was pretty much complete shock and heartbreak for him, due to the uncertainty.”

Couling, 20, is an instrumentation and engineering student at SAIT. A 2019 graduate of W.H. Croxford High School, he played AA hockey for the Airdrie Lightning during his high school years.

Even though Couling was avidly working out in the gym last year, Gilling said he started losing weight and experiencing acid reflux last fall.

“He went to the doctor, but they didn’t do any imaging,” she said. “They did some blood work and examined him and worked him up for acid reflux. He was so focused on school and didn’t want to miss any school.”

She said he had lost enough weight by Christmas that she started to be concerned. Another trip to the doctor resulted in an ultrasound and lab testing, which revealed a large mass on Couling’s liver. The FHC diagnosis followed suit.

Because Couling's cancer is so rare, Gilling said finding a treatment plan was difficult, as there are barely any case studies to base treatment on. She said their oncologist eventually discovered a successful treatment of an FHC patient in France from eight years ago, as well as a physician who has treated multiple patients with the same disease in the United States.

According to Gilling, since determining an aggressive treatment plan, Couling has completed two of six biweekly chemotherapy appointments. When the chemotherapy is complete, she said he will have to undergo surgery as well, whether that means a liver transplant or partial liver removal.

“With the chemo, they’re trying to stop the spread because there is some spread to the lining of his abdomen, so they are trying to mitigate that right now and hopefully shrink the tumour a bit,” she said. “That’s coming up down the road in four months or so, depending on how the chemo goes.”

While the ordeal has been scary for the whole family, Gilling said her son has approached the cancer diagnosis – and the ensuing treatment – with bravery and a positive mindset.

“Ryan amazes me,” she said. “He understands how rare this is and that there’s some uncertainty, but he’s optimistic and focused on getting back to school, ideally in the fall but maybe next year.

“He looked at me when we met with the oncologist for the first time…and said ‘Mom, I’ve got this. I’m going to beat this.’ He has the perfect attitude. Whenever he faces some adversity in life, he processes it and then he’s just focused on the next step.”

Shortly after Couling’s diagnosis came to light, Gilling said a co-worker of hers created a GoFundMe page, with the goal of raising $15,000 to support the family throughout the ordeal. That goal was surpassed within one day, and as of May 25, the page has exceeded the initial objective three-fold, with more than $47,000 raised.

While the family was initially hesitant about the GoFundMe, Gilling said the support shown by the community has been unbelievable. She said the money has provided her some peace of mind, considering Couling’s treatment may end up resulting in her needing to take time off work, or possibly travelling internationally to pursue additional treatment options.

“Within hours there were thousands of dollars and all of us were emotional,” she said. “The support has been unbelievable, and the messages – it just means the world to us.”

To contribute to the GoFundMe, visit

Scott Strasser,
Follow me on Twitter @scottstrasser19


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