- Jaundice leads to diagnosis while on vacation
- Whipple surgery back home
- Chemotherapy with FOLFIRINOX
My journey with pancreatic cancer began (in hindsight!) mid-August 2019, when I had what I thought was a minor stomach bug.
On September 2, my husband and I flew to Rome for a much-anticipated anniversary trip. While in Rome and other parts of Italy, I began to notice my stool was a light color, and my urine very dark. Also, my arms, legs, and abdomen were very itchy. I became fatigued more and more quickly, but we were walking a lot and I wasn’t overly concerned. I was 60 years old at that time and had been a very healthy person my entire life.
We next traveled to Madrid, where my son and his family lived. On Sunday, September 15, 2019, while at our son’s church, an American friend, who had served in the U.S. Navy, said to me, “Jennifer, you are yellow, your eyes are yellow, and you need to go to the hospital now. When I was in the Navy, if someone on ship looked like you do, they would fly them off the ship immediately.”
By then I was exhausted all the time and was grateful to get some help. We went to nearby Hospital Universitario de La Princesa, a public teaching hospital. My husband and I spent six years as missionaries in Latin America, so fortunately we are fluent in Spanish.
A Startling Diagnosis in Madrid
My blood work revealed a bilirubin level of 12.5. During an initial ultrasound the ER tech said, “There is something pressing on your bile duct, perhaps a gallstone, or perhaps something else, but we are going to admit you.”
Over the next five days in the hospital in Madrid, an in-depth ultrasound revealed a tumor pressing on my bile duct; the doctor told us that it was most likely pancreatic cancer. My husband took that news hard. I thought, surely it’s benign and not cancer. I had two stents put in my bile duct. Within two days my bilirubin dropped and I was discharged. We left the hospital on September 20 with a disc in hand with all the information from my five-day stay. I was very weak, and thankfully travel insurance allowed us to fly home first class, and I had a wheelchair door to door.
Starting Treatment Back Home
Back home in Cincinnati, on September 27 we met with highly recommended surgeon Dr. Shyam Allamaneni with Mercy Health. He was able to clearly see from my Madrid scans that I was a candidate for Whipple surgery, and that surgery was the best treatment for my tumor, followed by chemotherapy. We asked him many questions and decided to move ahead with the surgery. Dr. Allamaneni told us that after surgery, I would perhaps live two to five years.That was a shock! We began praying fervently along with 1000+ friends in our worldwide church fellowship that I would have twenty more years to live.
I had Whipple surgery done at The Jewish Hospital — Mercy Health on October 3, 2019. I was in the ICU for four days after surgery, and then in a regular room for two days. After the surgery, I was very weak and had a lot of pain for several weeks. I had no abdominal strength at all, and very little appetite. The results from my Whipple surgery showed a stage II tumor; I had 21 lymph nodes removed, all were clear.
Chemotherapy Follows Surgery
We chose oncologist Dr. Cynthia Chua (then at OHC) for follow-up chemotherapy with FOLFIRINOX. I began chemo on November 18, 2019. By treatment number seven on February 10, 2020, I weighed 93 pounds, had sores on my tongue and mouth, had lost half of my hair, and the only food I seemed to tolerate was Carnation Breakfast Essentials High Protein with Fairlife lactose- free milk, and Cream of Rice. My liver was beginning to suffer. I had already had my first clear CT scan, so we stopped chemo. I was so happy with that decision!
The Next Chapter
I have now been cancer-free for two and a half years. My hair has grown back, my weight is fairly steady at about 115 pounds. I take six Creon tablets (12,000mg each) every day, spread out with snacks and meals.
I have a naturally high metabolism and am also naturally prone to constipation so I have never suffered from “dumping syndrome.” My biggest challenge is maintaining my weight and having regular bowel movements. I have worked with a dietitian to help me maintain my weight. All my blood work has been fine, especially since stopping chemo.
I feel really good these days, my energy is almost what it was before my journey began. I now have three grandsons who I hope to watch grow up. My husband retired in April and we are moving to a new townhome in Williamsburg, Virginia. We look forward to our next chapter of life!