52 Chemotherapy Infusions + 7 Weeks of Radiation + 1 Pancreatic Cancer Surgery + 1 Ablation = 1 Grateful Survivor
I marked my 68th birthday on July 1, 2019, fearing it could be my last. Instead of celebrating, my wife Cheryl and I sat stunned and motionless in a North Carolina hospital room, surrounded by a team of grim-faced doctors. I was confronted with not one, but two unrelated diagnoses: Stage IV pancreatic cancer and Stage II squamous cell throat cancer.
My symptoms began in early 2019. I was experiencing some strange sensations in my mouth and on my tongue, so my doctor ordered a tongue biopsy and recommended a PET scan. At the hospital, doctors insisted a PET scan was unnecessary, but my wife—my most devoted advocate—and I persisted. Because of my family history of pancreatic cancer, I feared the worst. I wasn’t experiencing any symptoms commonly associated with pancreatic cancer; however, my father, uncle and father’s first cousin all died from it. I’m convinced our persistence helped save my life, though, because the PET scan results showed cancer on my tongue, in my pancreas and two spots on my liver.
After surviving testicular cancer 20 years earlier, I was determined to relentlessly fight these new cancer diagnoses. In fact, my first words to the doctors were, “When do we start chemo?” Less than a week after being diagnosed, I started treatment with FOLFIRINOX and remained on this grueling chemotherapy regimen for all of 2019 through May of 2020. In June of 2020 I switched to a different chemotherapy regimen, Gemcitabine/Abraxane. My concurrent throat cancer meant I was ineligible for a clinical trial. Fortunately, I responded well to the chemotherapy, and the tumors in my pancreas and liver shrunk.
Shortly after starting pancreatic cancer treatment in 2019, a doctor I knew through a friend suggested I seek a second opinion from Daniel Von Hoff, MD, a renowned pancreatic cancer researcher and clinician at Honor Health in Arizona, whose pancreatic cancer research has been funded in part by the Lustgarten Foundation. Despite knowing the statistics associated with long-term pancreatic cancer survival, I was encouraged by Dr. Von Hoff’s optimism and belief that advancements in pancreatic cancer research are happening every day.
Going forward with Surgery
After completing multiple rounds of FOLFIRINOX and successfully shrinking my tumors, I sought opinions on surgery, which I knew offered my best chance for long-term survival. Following multiple consultations, I was referred to a doctor at Duke University who optimistically told me he had a plan: radiation, surgery and chemotherapy. In 2021—the worst year of my life—I first underwent seven weeks of radiation to treat my throat cancer, a necessary step before pancreatic cancer surgery. Once the throat cancer was treated, my surgeon focused on removing the pancreatic cancer. I underwent a laparoscopic procedure to remove both the pancreatic tumor and a single spot on the liver. The second liver spot, which was too difficult to remove during surgery, was treated with ablation—using a hot knife to burn the tumor.
Post-surgery, I endured a nearly six-month Gemcitabine/Abraxane treatment regimen. During this time, I dealt with everything cancer threw at me—including aftereffects of radiation, depression and a 25-pound weight loss, which was devastating because I always made fitness a top priority. I also underwent 40 sessions of hyperbaric treatment to help heal my throat from the radiation. Since finishing chemotherapy, I’m monitored every three months, and my latest scan continues to show no evidence of disease! While fear of a relapse is always in the back of my mind, I try to take comfort in my doctor’s belief I will be disease-free for the rest of my life.
I’m incredibly appreciative of my entire medical team. If it wasn’t for the dedication of the researchers—many of whom are supported by Lustgarten—and the donors who fund them, I wouldn’t be here now. These scientists have committed their whole lives to being selfless and giving back, and together with the Lustgarten Foundation, they are transforming pancreatic cancer into a curable disease.
I am so grateful and thankful to my doctors for taking every extra step to see me survive. I’m committed to helping other patients by sharing my story and letting them know an outcome like mine is possible. This is especially important to me because I remember reading Michael’s survivor story on the Lustgarten website and how it inspired me to research surgery as part of my treatment plan.
Today, I’m focused on my future, which includes visiting my granddaughter, sons and daughters-in-law in Massachusetts and my siblings in Long Island and reconnecting with people from my past. I missed my 50th high school reunion due to chemotherapy, but I’m determined to celebrate at my 60th!
Phil’s Advice for Patients:
Get a second opinion.
Being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is overwhelming and finding the right medical team can make all the difference. Over the course of my pancreatic cancer journey, I consulted with 12-14 doctors, and each one offered a perspective for consideration.
Talk about your illness with your loved ones.
Let your family and friends know you appreciate their support and want to talk to them about what you’re going through. Humor can be the best medicine for dealing with a difficult situation like cancer.
Have a strong advocate and caregiver.
Your advocate will help fight for you to receive the best care. My wife has been my rock throughout this entire process. Caregivers also will push you to keep going, to get out of bed, even on days you think you can’t. In my experience, patients (myself included) can get so absorbed in our illness and all the terrible “what if” scenarios going through our heads, and the caregiver plays an important role in helping us work through these difficult, and at times all-consuming, emotions.
Help your doctor help you.
Accurately monitor and record your symptoms so you can properly articulate them to your medical team. This information will help your team develop a treatment plan that makes the most sense and will work best for your individual case.