Pancreatic cancer survivor: Clinical trial gave me my life back
Sometimes I forget that I have pancreatic cancer because I just don’t believe it’s going to kill me.
In fact, I’ve never felt healthier, thanks to an exercise program I’m participating in through a clinical trial at MD Anderson.
My pancreatic cancer diagnosis
Last summer, I noticed I was drinking a lot of water and urinating frequently. I also developed severe jaundice. At first, my doctor in Albuquerque, New Mexico thought I’d developed diabetes. But eventually, an ultrasound and MRI revealed a mass on my pancreas. I was shocked, but I’d battled through a cocaine addiction many years ago and knew I had it in me to fight, struggle and overcome again. What I learned from the addiction was that I can survive and I can make it.
Before I could start my pancreatic cancer treatment, my gastroenterologist needed to insert a stent in my pancreas so it could start processing fats again. He tried to place the stent three times, but the tumor kept getting in the way.
My pancreatic cancer treatment at MD Anderson
My wife and friends urged me to seek a second opinion with Dr. David Fogelman at MD Anderson. So, on Oct. 27, 2016, I flew to Houston and met with him. He told me that his colleague, Jeffrey Lee, M.D., could likely do the procedure. If Dr. Lee couldn’t get that stent in, no one in the world could, he told me. I realized then that I was in the best place in the world for pancreatic cancer treatment.
The next day, Dr. Lee successfully inserted a stent where the bile and pancreatic ducts meet. About a month later, I started three weeks of radiation therapy and chemotherapy simultaneously. After that, I’d undergo a Whipple procedure, a surgery that would remove part of my pancreas, stomach and small intestine, as well as my gallbladder.
I also enrolled in a clinical trial that looked at whether exercising before the Whipple procedure helped with recovery. Through the program, I learned how to perform different stretches and exercises using weights and resistance bands. I exercised for five hours a week and walked at least 2 miles every day.
My Whipple procedure
If the clinical trial hadn’t pushed me to exercise, I don’t think I would’ve been strong enough to survive my Whipple procedure on January 10.
The surgery was supposed to take eight hours, but it took Dr. Matthew Katz more than 11. He ended up having to dissect and resect a main portal vein because my tumor had wrapped around its sheath.
How the exercise clinical trial helped me recover
The initial recovery was brutal. I lost nearly 20 pounds while on a liquid diet.
And, for the first week or so, I wasn’t able to pee so they had to insert catheters. I also couldn’t have bowel movements for the first few days, which triggered abdominal pain. But I couldn’t take strong painkillers because of my addiction history, and the hydrocodone they prescribed made me feel too sick.
Despite all that, I still mustered the strength to get out of bed and walk 20 laps around the nurses unit. I even motivated another patient to join me.
The clinical trial didn’t just play a big part in my surgery and recovery; it’s also helped me turn my health around. I now exercise regularly with my wife, and that’s given me the energy to enjoy golfing and camping. It’s also helped me embrace a healthier diet. I’ve cut back on all red meats and started eating more fruits and vegetables.
I’ve never felt better
I’m now undergoing post-operative chemotherapy. I’ve had some diarrhea, abdominal pain, gas and bloating, but I haven’t had any major side effects. And most importantly, my cancer hasn’t spread.
Cancer is hard, but I can tell you from first-hand experience that recovering from addiction is harder. The difference is in the support you receive. At MD Anderson, I feel safe; I feel comfortable; I feel loved and cared for. The love and the reaching out that happens between people during a cancer journey is unimaginable. It’s an amazing feeling.
Emotionally, spiritually and physically, I’ve never felt better. I’m planning to beat this cancer, so I enjoy every day without worrying about the next.