Pancreatic cancer treatment at MD Anderson gave me hope
I have always enjoyed an active lifestyle, playing pickleball and taking long walks with my husband, Bill. But in April 2019, I started experiencing back pain and a loss of appetite for a couple of weeks. One night, the pain was so bad that Bill took me to our local hospital in Michigan. Doctors found a mass on my pancreas that turned out to be stage IV pancreatic cancer.
My family was in shock and scared when they heard the news. My prognosis did not seem good. I had a PET scan and laparoscopic surgery that showed metastasis to my liver. This meant that I was not eligible for the Whipple procedure, a complex surgery often used to treat pancreatic cancer. It was a shocking and overwhelming time.
After leaving my local hospital feeling discouraged, my family researched other treatment options and hospitals with expertise in pancreatic cancer treatment. MD Anderson was consistently ranked at the top. We decided to make an appointment and travel to Houston.
Finding hope at MD Anderson for pancreatic cancer treatment
I had my first appointment at MD Anderson in August 2019. The doctors at MD Anderson gave me and my family hope for the first time since my diagnosis. I went through a re-staging process to assess the progression of my cancer. I underwent a fresh set of labs, scans and tests so my care team could understand my case and evaluate the cancer’s progression. Even today when I have video visits, the radiologists at MD Anderson do their review of my scans that are taken at a different facility back home so they can track my progress.
My radiation oncologist Albert Koong, M.D., and oncologist Brandon Smaglo, M.D., never made me feel rushed during my appointments. They took the time to answer questions while keeping things positive. They never used timelines. This helped our mindset as we absorbed the information.
Undergoing stereotactic body radiation therapy
In addition to eight rounds of chemotherapy, my care team prescribed stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) on my pancreas. This type of radiation therapy precisely targets the pancreatic tumor from multiple different angles. It focuses a high dose of radiation onto the tumor while minimizing radiation therapy to nearby healthy tissues.
Dr. Koong and his team walked us through the SBRT process. He showed me my high-resolution CT scans to explain how critical it was to determine the tumor’s location in relation to surrounding normal tissue. He explained that SBRT techniques allow the treatment of tumors that move with normal breathing and that this approach can compensate for tumor motion. My treatment was customized to target my tumor's exact points.
The radiation therapists made a mold that held my body in place during each 30-minute treatment. I had to be very still and keep both my arms up. The radiation therapists helped me through each stage of treatment. Other than my shoulders being sore from holding my arms up, my side effects were minimal.
My MD Anderson care team connected me to a care team at a hospital in Michigan so I could be close to home when receiving chemotherapy treatments. They all collaborate on my treatment plan.
Adjusting to side effects of pancreatic cancer treatment
Before I started chemotherapy, I expected the worst. But I’ve found it helps me to remember that even though it makes me sick, it destroys the cancer. My side effects usually are a lack of appetite and weight loss, heavy fatigue, digestive issues and light neuropathy.
I cannot do the same things physically that I could do in the past because I get tired more easily. I now eat smaller meals throughout the day, which helps my digestive tract. My doctor also prescribed a pancreatic enzyme to help. Some of my go-to meals are oatmeal, apples with peanut butter, cinnamon toast and hard-boiled eggs.
Over the last three years during breaks from chemotherapy, I build my strength back by playing pickleball and enjoying time with my family and friends. I have learned to take things one day at a time.
Optimism after my pancreatic cancer diagnosis
I have video visits with Dr. Koong and Dr. Smaglo every 6 to 12 weeks, and we communicate through MyChart. If there is an important treatment or decision to make, I go to Houston to handle it in person.
MD Anderson has been in my corner each step of the way. The doctors give me the confidence to keep going. When Dr. Koong visited my Michigan hometown to watch his son’s tennis tournament in 2021, I was even able to meet up with them to watch the matches.
What helps me the most are my faith and surrounding myself with positive people, and, most importantly, my positive doctors. That keeps me going and uplifts me along the way.