Pancreatic cyst and cancer survivor: Why I’m glad I went to MD Anderson
Before I went to MD Anderson, I didn’t even know I hadpancreatic cancer. All I knew was that I had a huge pancreatic cyst. And I only found out about that last October, after I fainted and started vomiting during a trip to Los Angeles. A heart scan I got at an emergency room there revealed the cyst only by chance.
Still, my California doctors recommended having the cyst looked at once I got home. So, I met with a local doctor after returning to Alabama. Additional scans showed the cyst was so big, it had taken over almost two-thirds of my pancreas. It also severely compressed my stomach and caused my kidneys to reroute some blood vessels to improve their circulation.
I know there are some really fine doctors here in Birmingham. But with a pancreatic cyst that large, I wanted an expert to remove it. That’s why I called MD Anderson.
Unparalleled expertise and a true team approach
At MD Anderson, I met first with Dr. Michael Kim. He’s a surgical oncologist who works exclusively on the pancreas. I love that he has that degree of specialization. I also love that he got another expert involved in my care “just in case.”
Dr. Kim recommended the same treatment as my local doctors: surgery to remove most of my pancreas, as well as my spleen. But once he explained all the possible complications I could have, I realized it was a much bigger deal than I’d originally thought. If the cyst had grown around my renal vein, for instance, that vein might have to be replaced. In the worst-case scenario, I could lose a kidney.
To prepare for this possibility, Dr. Kim contacted vascular surgeon Dr. Sophia Khan. She is just as qualified as he is in her field. We ended up not needing her help, thank goodness, because the renal vein was clear and Dr. Kim was able to do all of his own vascular repairs. But even so, she remained on standby for the entire seven-hour operation. Just knowing somebody that skilled was waiting in the wings for me blew my mind.
The thrill of seeing so many experts working together
Dr. Kim also consulted with Dr. Manoop Bhutani, a gastroenterologist who specializes in endoscopic ultrasound and pancreatic diseases. Dr. Kim talked to him because he was considering draining the cyst before the surgery to remove it more easily. But Dr. Bhutani said there was a danger of internal bleeding with that plan, and he didn’t think it was worth the risk. The cyst would also fill back up again within 24 hours. So, he advised against it.
It was so interesting to watch my doctors at MD Anderson work together. Seeing some of the best medical minds in the world talk things out before making a decision — and listening to one another — was amazing to witness.
Dr. Kim ended up taking Dr. Bhutani’s advice. I had the surgery on Feb. 10, 2022. It was a total success.
My unexpected pancreatic cancer diagnosis
Dr. Kim told me the odds were good that my cyst wouldn’t be cancerous, even though it was very large. So, I think we were both surprised when he walked into my hospital room a few days later with the pathology results.
MD Anderson pathologists had found a single, tiny “focus” of adenocarcinoma on my pancreatic cyst. It was only as wide as a single grain of sand, making it stage 0.
Dr. Kim said he had never seen a single spot of cancer that small get picked up by a scan before. But that tiny pinpoint of cancer could have been overlooked very easily. He said it was a tribute to the skill of MD Anderson’s pathologists that the cancer was found at all.
My pancreatic cancer treatment
Even though my cancer was incredibly small, Dr. Kim referred me to medical oncologist Dr. Brandon Smaglo for additional treatment options.
Dr. Smaglo recommended six months of chemotherapy, both oral and intravenous. He said it was something he’d normally do for patients with more advanced cases of pancreatic cancer. But he wanted to give me the best possible odds of knocking it out before it had a chance to get established.
I started chemotherapy in April 2022 and am finishing treatment in late September. Amazingly, I’ve had absolutely no side effects, except for maybe a little hair thinning, which only I would notice. Once I healed from the surgery, I felt better than I had in 15 years. It was incredible.
It’s also been wonderful to receive my chemo treatments so close to home. I would’ve done whatever it took to get to MD Anderson, of course. But I appreciate Dr. Smaglo’s willingness to work with a local oncologist in Alabama, minimizing my travel time to Houston. It’s made my treatment feel seamless.
My only complication: a 'sleeping' stomach
So far, the only complication I’ve had was when my stomach “went to sleep” right after the surgery. This is something that can happen with Whipple procedures (which I didn’t have). It can also happen when someone has had a lot of work done on their digestive system (which I did).
“Going to sleep” may sound very gentle, but it’s not. Your stomach essentially shuts down and stops working. So, anything I ate or drank right after waking up just sat there — even water and fruit-flavored gelatin. Eventually, I had to have my stomach drained and take in nothing by mouth except a few ice chips for four days.
That was pretty uncomfortable. But at least I wasn’t hungry. It turns out, when your stomach’s not working, you don’t have an appetite. Once mine woke back up, though, I discovered I could eat all kinds of things that I hadn’t been able to eat in years. And the remaining third of my pancreas was working perfectly. So, I didn’t need any digestive supplements. I’d call that an unqualified success.
My advice to other pancreatic cyst patients
I always knew that if I ever had a significant health challenge, I would try to find the best possible place for my treatment. I feel very fortunate now to have found Dr. Kim and MD Anderson.
But I understand the urge to have surgery immediately, wherever you are, before getting in touch with MD Anderson. A lot of people do that.
If I could give just one piece of advice to other pancreatic cyst patients, it would be this: contact MD Anderson first. Even if you’re not sure you have cancer, the worst thing that can happen is you might find out you don’t qualify to go there just yet.
And isn’t the chance to be seen and treated by the best worth a phone call?