Survivor Stories
May 18, 2023 • 3 Min

Blood Clots, a Stroke, and Pancreatic Cancer

Mike Emerson

Pancreatic cancer survivor Mike Emerson, his wife Carol and their dog
  • Severe abdominal pain led to diagnosis
  • Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and more chemo
  • Radiation therapy weakened and fractured my spine

In March 2014 I suffered a stroke. The cause? Blood clots.

Eventually I found out that blood clots are a common indication of cancer. But I didn’t know that at the time.

After the stroke, I had episodes of abdominal pain throughout the summer of 2014. CT scans did not reveal the cause. By August I was suffering from the most severe and debilitating bouts of abdominal pain, so I went to Providence Urgent Care in Spokane, Washington, near my home. I was sent to the hospital and in early September, I had an upper GI endoscopy and endoscopic ultrasound with biopsy. That’s when I found out that I had pancreatic adenocarcinoma.

First Step: Surgery

The gastroenterologist at the hospital referred me to Dr. Juan Mejia, a surgeon who specializes in pancreatic and liver surgery at Providence Liver and Cancer Center.  

On September 30, 2014, I had an extended distal pancreatectomy, which included the removal of my spleen and gallbladder. My tumor was classified as T3NOMO—it had not spread beyond the pancreas or into the lymph nodes. But even though Dr. Mejia removed the tumor, that was just the start. I had a long and difficult road ahead of me.

Second Step: Two Years of Chemo

I began chemotherapy one month after the surgery. Dr. Peter Schlegel, my oncologist at CancerCare Northwest (at that time), prescribed weekly gemcitabine infusions for seven cycles. I did that from November 3 to December 16, 2014. Then I began continuous pump chemotherapy (5-FU) with radiation therapy for six weeks. After that I went back to gemcitabine for seven more cycles.

In April 2015, 13 months after my stroke, CT scans showed the pancreatic cancer was progressing. My CA 19-9 levels had never been very high—some patients are not sensitive to this test—so my CA 19-9 was not helpful in determining what was going on. For the next five months I tried a different chemotherapy regimen, FOLFIRINOX, for eight cycles. Ultimately I had two years of chemo. Treatment was my full-time “job” and I lost 60 pounds because of it.

Radiation Therapy Damaged My Spine

The radiation therapy also weakened my spine and eventually I sustained several vertebral compression fractures. As a result, I had seven spinal procedures from 2015 through 2018.

I had lasting side effects from the chemotherapy and radiation, including peripheral neuropathy in my feet and lots of back pain. However, I would still do it all over again. It was worth the chance to keep on living.

I Am a Nine-Year Survivor

It’s been almost nine years since my diagnosis and I’m still here. More than that, I am thriving. My wife Carol and I are living a happy life together with our dog. I have a tinkering shop that keeps me busy. I plan to keep going as long as I can.

What are my tips for other people going through pancreatic cancer treatment? Every day set goals for yourself. Don’t become sedentary. Remain hopeful and grateful. My wife prayed every day during my journey, sometimes just to get through one more day. She attributes that to my success, along with amazing healthcare providers.