Monday, March 23, 2009

Her toughest opponent: Cathy and her team take on pancreatic cancer

Cathy partnered with Cancer Center physicians and staff to fight pancreatic cancer and regain her active lifestyle.

Cathy, Pancreatic Cancer, 3-year survivor

Sixty-nine year old Cathy S. has more energy than most people half her age. A retired realtor, she enjoys traveling, tennis, walking, jogging and the occasional round of golf. She especially loves the beach and her house on Cape Cod. It is there that she spends summers and occasional weekends enjoying her active lifestyle and time with her husband, three sons, three daughters-in-law and eight grandchildren.

While at the Cape in August 2005, Cathy noticed her skin had become markedly jaundiced. She knew something was wrong and sought help. After an initial misdiagnosis, doctors at a local hospital concluded she had pancreatic cancer. Her active lifestyle would have to be put on hold while she fought her disease for the next year and a half. Cathy chose the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center to help her win that fight.

Pancreatic cancer is a rare disease, and accounts for only two percent of all cancer diagnoses. It is also one of the leading causes of cancer-related death. Despite these statistics, Cathy was hopeful: "The odds weren't great, but I knew I could overcome them." Her optimism came, in part, from her confidence in Cancer Center physicians.

At her first Cancer Center appointment, Cathy and her medical oncologist, Jeffrey Clark, MD, medical director for Clinical Programs, discussed a plan of action: "He spent hours with me and was very kind, patient and thoughtful. He answered every question that could be answered." In conjunction with surgeon Carlos Fernandez-del Castillo, MD, clinical co-director, Tucker Gosnell Center for Gastrointestinal Cancers, Cathy, her family and Dr. Clark decided her best option was a Whipple procedure, which involves the removal of the part of the pancreas that connects to the digestive tract as well as parts of adjacent organs.

The Whipple procedure is complex and includes risks. As with any complicated surgery, it is best performed by doctors who have extensive experience. Dr. Fernandez-del Castillo specializes in this operation, performing over 120 a year. "Dr. Fernandez-del Castillo is a wonderful surgeon. I knew he was the one to have," says Cathy.

Cathy's surgeons successfully performed the Whipple procedure the Friday before Labor Day that September. Following the surgery, Dr. Clark helped her enroll in an innovative clinical trial involving only 90 pancreatic patients nationwide. "I felt it was a worthwhile undertaking, even though it was a more difficult protocol than the standard one," Cathy explains. Her protocol included chemotherapy and external beam radiation therapy. "There were some days that were tougher than others," she recalls. But Cathy knew the aggressive therapy was her best chance.

Instead of focusing on the difficult periods, she focused her energies on staying positive and on the future. Her family planned a trip to Costa Rica once the treatment was done, and threw a surprise party at the Cape to celebrate her recovery.

Cathy's optimistic outlook and the support of her family and friends were matched in full by the optimism and support of the Cancer Center. "My friends are always amazed I had such a positive experience there," she says. "The doctors, nurses and staff were great. Even when I pulled up to the Yawkey Center—the valet attendants, no matter who was there, always had a smile on their face."

Though Cathy is remarkably upbeat, she is also realistic. She knows there is always a chance for recurrence, and meets with Clark every two months to track her progress. The good news she has received at these visits, she says, has been a "huge sigh of relief," and "like being a kid let out of school in June." And even more like a kid in June, Cathy now has the freedom to get back to all the things she enjoys: traveling, tennis, time with family and friends—and of course, being on the Cape.

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