What Do You Do When You Are Diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer? (Part I)
In honor of Father’s Day, enBloom is featuring a special two part guest post from Helen W. She shares her family’s personal journey during her father’s battle with pancreatic cancer. This story powerfully illustrates the value of early screening as well as the benefits of taking an active role in managing your health care.
It was November 2009 when my father thought he might have a stomach virus from one of the numerous holiday parties that he and my mother had attended. Several people from his job had also gotten sick so we didn’t think much of it when he stayed home a couple of days from work with symptoms of the stomach flu. He went to our family physician and she ran a couple of tests on him. In particular, she was concerned that he may have gotten Hepatitis A from the dinner party. On one of the lab tests she noticed that dad’s liver enzyme levels were high. This concerned her enough to order an MRI and CT scan. The results came in later that evening. Dr. Ferrer (who was also a good family friend) was crying as she relayed the news that a tumor of the pancreas was discovered through the diagnostic tests. This was serious. The implications of a malignant tumor on the pancreas stunned the entire family. We all knew about pancreatic cancer and the grave prognosis that usually came with that diagnosis. More often than not, pancreatic cancer patients have no symptoms until it is in the final stages. Although we weren’t quite sure whether the tumor was malignant yet, it was definitely cause for concern and the anxiety ran deep as we waited for an official diagnosis.
While doctors were attempting to biopsy the tumor my father had to have an emergency procedure to relieve the bile buildup which caused his skin to turn yellow with jaundice. Although we were very fearful of Dad having pancreatic cancer, the doctor that performed the bile procedure had some reassuring words. He told us that the tumor was small. Although, it was more than likely malignant, Dad would probably be eligible for surgery to remove it. As a matter of fact, Dad’s case appeared to be more promising than some of the other patients that this doctor had seen. While the first biopsy attempt was unsuccessful, the second one revealed that the tumor was indeed malignant. A diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is never good, but Dad was fortunate to have the disease in its early stages. The tumor had not metastasized (or spread) to any other major organs or lymph nodes. As the first doctor had indicated, the tumor was small making Dad eligible for a surgery commonly performed on early-stage pancreatic cancer patients known as the whipple surgery.
Since we lived in the DC area, many of Dad’s friends and co-workers suggested various doctors at Johns Hopkins University Hospital because of the high volume of whipple surgeries and research performed there. However, as we continued our research we kept hearing the name of a young doctor at Georgetown University Hospital that was the Chief of Georgetown’s Department of Surgery— Dr. Lynt Johnson. Since Dad had his pancreatic biopsy performed there, physicians suggested that he talk to Dr. Johnson about prospects for surgery. Once we pulled Dr. Johnson’s bio up on the the internet we instinctively knew that he was the one who would perform the surgery. Our instincts were confirmed once my parents met with him. Dr. Johnson felt that he could successfully remove the tumor. Our initial feelings of dread and anxiety were replaced with the feeling of cautious optimism.