Survivor Stories
February 6, 2018 • 3 Min

Chemotherapy to Survive; Fitness to Thrive

Mike Levine

Pancreatic cancer patient Mike Levine is on his bicycle during a training session for the Ironman Triathlon.
  • Stage II diagnosis and a Whipple
  • Chemotherapy is ineffective; stage III
  • A change of oncologists brings a more successful treatment despite reaching stage IV
  • Training for the Ironman Triathlon

I am 68 years old, I have stage IV adenocarcinoma of the pancreas, and I am on lifetime chemotherapy

I had noticed that my urine was a dark color, even though I wasn’t dehydrated, and my stool was different as well. I went to a gastroenterologist, but it took three months of testing before I was diagnosed on July 1, 2015 with stage II cancer. I underwent Whipple surgery at UCLA on July 21, 2015, with Dr. Timothy Donahue. I got the biopsy results two weeks after the surgery. The biopsy indicated cancer cells in 13 of the 25 lymph nodes that were removed. This put me into stage III at this point.

Unsuccessful Treatment

Chemotherapy began eight weeks later, for the next six months every other week. I had this treatment from September 9, 2015 thru February 11, 2016. I was on a combination of 5-FU, irinotecan, oxaliplatin, and leucovorin. I did not tolerate this formula too well. It did not work on the cancer and I had side effects including nausea, vomiting, neuropathy, fatigue, and weight loss. I was not happy with my oncologist, and the combination of my difficulty with this first round of chemo led to depression and a sense of doom.

The cancer had spread to my lungs by March of 2016, and I was now officially stage IV. I couldn’t breathe, coughed around the clock, and nothing as far as medication worked. I changed oncologists, and began working with Dr. Paul (Fantastic!) Fanta at UCSD Moores Cancer Center. Dr. Fanta saved my life. He put me on a new regimen of chemo (gemcitabine and Abraxane), and within eight weeks my lungs were clear, CT scans were normal and clear, tumor markers were normal, and I had no sign of disease.

Molecular Profiling and Triathlon Training

I had a molecular profile done—UCSD picked up the cost since it was invaluable for their research. It showed the chemo I was given for the first six months was a negative for response for my cancer, while the new formula gave a very positive response for fighting my cancer.

With everything calm and stable, I went back to something I had not done since 1996—competing in triathlons. Friends introduced me to Kathleen McCartney, who invited me to join her for a bicycle ride in January 2017. I began training with her, working around my chemotherapy and its side effects. Kathleen and I competed in the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii in October 2017. I continue to work out and train for triathlons (swim, bike, run). I have been inspired to get back into fitness, to survive and thrive.

After a four and a half-year battle with pancreatic cancer, Mike passed away. His commitment to fitness and triathlons defined him beyond the disease. Our deepest sympathy to his family.

How can I stay healthy during treatment?

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