April 24, 2015
Facing pancreatic cancer and the Whipple procedure head on
BY Shannon Magee
On May 23, 2013, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The next week, my husband and I came to MD Anderson for my first appointment.
My friend, a doctor, had recommended I seek treatment at MD Anderson if I needed a Whipple procedure, a difficult surgery used to treat pancreatic cancer. I didn't yet know if I needed a Whipple procedure. But I didn't want to waste any time or look back with any regrets.
Plotting my attack against my pancreatic cancer
During my first appointment at MD Anderson, my amazing surgeon, Matthew Katz, M.D., told me that I would be dead in a year if I did nothing.
I wanted to live, so I asked my doctors to throw everything they had at me. Pancreatic cancer has a very high recurrence rate, and I didn't want the cancer to spread or come back.
My care team decided my best option was a new pancreatic cancer clinical trial. I was the first person to enroll.
My pancreatic cancer treatment: Chemo, radiation and the Whipple procedure.
The trial started with eight weeks of FOLFIRINOX, a chemotherapy regimen for advanced pancreatic cancer. Then, I underwent six more weeks of chemo with radiation.
After that, it was time for the Whipple procedure. During the surgery, they removed part of my pancreas, half my stomach, my small intestine, 28 lymph nodes and my portal vein. I went to the hospital for the Whipple procedure at 5 a.m. The surgery was finished about 11 hours later. By 2:00 a.m. the next morning, I was resting comfortably in the Intermediate Care ward.
Afterwards, I was moved to MD Anderson's Whipple ward, where I stayed for a week. Gradually, I regained my appetite. I started with clear liquids. By day three, I was eating soft food. By discharge one week after surgery, I began an eight-week fat-free, sugar-free, fiber-free diet.
Once I'd recovered from the Whipple procedure, I did two more months of chemo with a drug called Gemzar.
Staying strong during my pancreatic cancer battle
Right after my diagnosis, I had quit working and withdrawn from all of my regular activities. But I quickly realized I needed my regular activities and obligations to help me feel normal and keep my mind off of cancer.
When cancer was on my mind, I coped by thinking of it as a war. In my mind, the droplets of chemo coming down the IV line were toy soldiers coming to fight my cancer. These soldiers, I imagined, were played by actors from World War II movies: Steve McQueen, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Ernest Borgnine -- the hard core, salt of the earth warriors who saved the world. The General in charge of the deployment was George Clooney (because he is George Clooney). Their mission was to rendezvous at the PICC line and re-take the portal vein. My friends even sent me buckets and buckets of green toy soldiers as encouragement.
Life after the Whipple procedure
A whole new life began for me after the Whipple procedure. I am still in recovery. There are new challenges each day, and I'm learning to deal with my new normal.
Following my surgery, I've dealt with osteopenia, thyroid replacement therapy, and lots of dental work. At this point, I'm eating a pretty typical diet, but I'm taking many supplements to help me digest my food. I have good days and bad days, but it's a minor inconvenience in the scheme of things. After all, I continue to have no evidence of disease.
I know I'm lucky. That's why I volunteer with myCancerConnection, MD Anderson's one-on-one support program that connects cancer patients and their caregivers with others who've been there. I share my stories and tell other pancreatic patients that there is hope.
I have always been a positive, "glass half-full" person, but I now cherish every day as a gift. I look at things that used to be problems from a better perspective. I trust in my faith and try not to worry. My doctors say that I'm a miracle, but I know miracles happen every day at MD Anderson.
I now cherish every day as a gift.