I plan to play a lot of golf in the next year. At 75 years old, in addition to being a former professional fundraiser, I also am an avid walker, reader and bridge player. But when I received a Stage III pancreatic cancer diagnosis in 2016, I didn’t know how long I could continue doing the things I loved.
A mysterious pain in my stomach and low back had led to an initial diagnosis of pancreatitis, but my own deep family history of cancer inspired me to push for more information. I recalled advice from an uncle who had survived both kidney and bladder cancer: he told me that unlike most men, he paid
attention to what his body was telling him, and he wasn’t scared to go to the doctor. My quest for answers led to more testing, which revealed a malignant tumor lodged against a major vein.
I met with a radiation oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and learned about a new clinical trial sponsored by the Pancreatic Cancer Collective, an initiative of the Lustgarten Foundation and Stand Up To Cancer. I joined the trial as #27 in the pilot test group.
Hope in Clinical Trials
The trial combined a powerful chemotherapy called FOLFIRINOX with an older blood pressure medication, losartan, which is believed to soften the hard outer surface of the pancreatic tumor, making the tumor more vulnerable to chemotherapy. My tumor responded dramatically, shrinking “like butter in the microwave,” as one of my doctors described. After six months of chemotherapy and proton beam radiation treatments, I underwent a complex Whipple surgery to resect the tumor. Five years later, my oncologist sees no signs of cancer and says I don’t need to come in for scans anymore.
Among patients in the trial whose pancreatic tumors had initially seemed inoperable, 61% were able to have tumors completely removed. In three, the drug treatment was so effective that the surgery found no detectable cancer. The study found that overall, patients whose tumors could be removed survived a median of 33 months. The pilot study’s findings have been carried forward to a larger randomized study.
To those considering participation in a clinical trial, I have one piece of advice: Do it. They’re making really great strides with early diagnosis, and I’m proof of the fact that you have a fighting chance.