There is Always Hope
In June 2019, when I was just 43, I was diagnosed with a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor (PNET), a rare type of tumor accounting for less than 10 percent of tumors found in the pancreas. My journey to this diagnosis was a long one, and looking back, there were definitely warning signs that something was not right with my body. In March 2018, I thought I was sick with the flu and fainted while walking to school with my children, who were then three years old and 10 months old. Luckily, they did not get hurt. However, I ended up in the hospital the next night, as doctors discovered I had two bleeding ulcers caused by what they thought was excessive use of over-the-counter pain medication (and later learned were caused by hormones from the tumor).
After the bleeding ulcers were found and treated, I remained severely anemic. At my doctor’s recommendation, I received four iron transfusions and took iron pills, but my anemia persisted. I was losing blood somewhere in my body and doctors were not yet able to pinpoint where and why. Then, in the spring of 2019, after a colonoscopy and two endoscopies, doctors discovered a small nodule in my small intestine, and a biopsy revealed it was a neuroendocrine tumor. Even at that point, I was unable to process it could be cancer. I underwent a CT scan of my abdomen and pelvis, which showed my tumor was more than four inches long and had originated in the pancreas—a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor.
I was in complete shock when I was diagnosed, because it never occurred to me that as a young, active person with no family history of the disease, I could have a PNET. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, the average age of a PNET diagnosis is 60 years old. Despite being scared, I never wavered from my belief that my excellent medical team, positive thinking, hope and my strong faith would carry me through this life-changing diagnosis.
After seeking a second opinion, I decided to be treated at Massachusetts General Hospital, near my home in Boston. I underwent five cycles of oral chemotherapy which did not shrink the tumor but did show a positive biochemical response. I am so fortunate my surgeon was willing to take the bold step of performing surgery even though there was blood vessel involvement. I had the Whipple surgery on November 11, 2019, to remove my entire PNET tumor. Additionally, my surgeon removed 75% of my pancreas, my gallbladder, and parts of the small bile duct, stomach and small intestine. He also excised a portion of my portal vein, which was extremely risky, as this blood vessel carries blood from the gastrointestinal tract to the liver.
I was blessed with a loving, supportive circle of family members and friends who were there for me and my husband after the surgery, helping with the kids and cooking meals. Five weeks after surgery, I was back at work, and three weeks after that, my family and I celebrated with a trip to Walt Disney World. While I have some minor gastrointestinal issues stemming from the surgery, I feel great and am learning how to manage them by taking pancreatic enzymes. I am incredibly thankful I do not need further treatments. My most recent scans showed no evidence of disease. I will continue to undergo scans and tests every two months for now, but my doctor is optimistic I can start a new chapter post-cancer.
Difficult Does Not Mean Impossible
I want other PNET patients to know there is always hope. My tumor was entwined with my portal blood vessel, making surgery quite challenging and a procedure many surgeons would not want to take on. However, I searched for the right doctors and surgeons who were not only highly skilled, but compassionate and confident that despite my difficult case, they could successfully remove my PNET and get me back to my life as quickly as possible.
While researching pancreatic cancer, I learned about the Lustgarten Foundation and immediately connected with the Foundation’s uplifting message of hope, and their commitment to directing 100% of every dollar to pancreatic cancer research. The Foundation is shining an urgently-needed spotlight on this disease, raising awareness and research funding, and giving people like me faith, strength and comfort. I’m convinced the Foundation’s steadfast dedication to research will result in earlier detection and important new treatment options.
Together with family and friends, I formed Team Pezzulo and participated in the Foundation’s 2019 Boston Walk, raising nearly $17,000 for research funding. It was inspiring to join so many others impacted by pancreatic cancer.
I refuse to live my life in fear and I am committed to sharing my story so others know there is hope and life beyond cancer. I am living proof you can survive a PNET diagnosis and treatment. Today, I am proud of my scar from surgery and showed it off in a swimsuit when we went to Italy to celebrate my life as a cancer survivor!