Pancreatic cancer survivor: Whipple procedure made me cancer-free after ‘inoperable’ tumor
When I was diagnosed with stage III pancreatic cancer in January 2017, I was pretty shocked. Both of my parents died of heart disease in their 50s. So, I’d grown up looking out for that, along with diabetes and hypertension, which also run in my family.
At the time of my diagnosis, I was 53, and I didn’t know anything about pancreatic cancer. I just wanted it out of me. Today, I am cancer-free, thanks to a second opinion and a successful surgery at MD Anderson. I’m very grateful to be alive, but I wish now that I’d gone to MD Anderson first.
Why I went to MD Anderson for pancreatic cancer treatment
I went to MD Anderson about a year after starting treatment near my home outside of Dallas. The surgeon there thought he could remove the tumor easily. But when he went in to take the cancer out, he took one look and sewed me right back up.
He said the tumor itself was fairly small, but it had tendrils wrapped around a critical artery. Those made it too dangerous to remove, in his opinion. So, I had seven months of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation therapy, to try to shrink it instead.
I decided to seek a second opinion after finishing radiation, because my oncologist told me the new plan was to just keep giving me chemotherapy until I couldn’t stand it anymore. By then, I already had neuropathy in my hands and feet so bad that I often needed a wheelchair to get around. So, that didn’t sound very good to me.
I also learned that the standard order of care for locally advanced pancreatic cancer is chemotherapy and radiation first, followed by surgery later on. So, I felt afraid and a little misled.
After reviewing my records and completing their own evaluations, both doctors said that they felt my cancer could be removed successfully. Despite the tumor touching a critical artery and vein under my pancreas, there was no evidence that the cancer had spread, so an operation was still possible.
My doctors recommended a Whipple procedure. During this surgery, the head of my pancreas (where the tumor was) would be removed, along with my gallbladder, bile duct, and part of my stomach and small intestine.
Dr. Tzeng performed the surgery successfully on March 20, 2018. I’ve been cancer-free ever since.
Dealing with the side effects of a Whipple procedure
Today, my biggest problem is trying to gain and keep on weight. Which is ironic, because all of my adult life before this, I’d been trying to diet and lose weight. I even had bariatric surgery in 2011, and dropped 80 pounds as a result.
Due to the bariatric surgery, my stomach was already pretty small. But it went from teeny to teeny-tiny after the Whipple procedure. And though I ate smaller meals more frequently throughout the day, I still got so malnourished at one point that I had to be fed through an IV.
Chelsea Ebrus, a senior clinical dietitian at MD Anderson, has since helped me figure out how to nourish myself better. I’m able to keep my weight fairly stable now, though it’s still a challenge sometimes. I’ve also had to deal with something called dumping syndrome, which is about what it sounds like. Because of my previous bariatric surgery — which was further modified by the Whipple procedure — I often have to run to the bathroom about five minutes after I eat.
To control these side effects, I take vitamins, digestive enzymes and anti-diarrheal medication. And though I still have a bit of neuropathy from the chemotherapy, I can braid my daughters’ hair, cook, clean and do the laundry. So, I don’t complain.
The way I see it is, I’m still here. I can eat whatever I want. And, most importantly, I get to have more time with my family. When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know if I’d even live long enough to see my younger daughter graduate from high school. Today, she’s a sophomore in college. And now, thanks to MD Anderson, I’m making plans to watch that graduation ceremony, too.