Survivor Stories
December 13, 2022 • 3 Min

Forget Stages . . . Set Goals Instead!

Heather Sanderson

Heather Sanderson
  • Chronic stomachache leads to pancreatic cancer diagnosis
  • Tumor on the superior mesenteric artery
  • Clinical trial “CASE2218”
  • Complicated Whipple procedure

I am 58 years old, a mom of five, and grandmother to one little girl. 

I had recently moved to Berea, Ohio, from Florida to help care for my aging parents who are struggling with memory loss. I regularly run 5Ks and do CrossFit training. With all of this on my plate, I wasn’t going to let anything slow me down, least of all cancer.

A chronic stomachache in early 2021 sent me to the emergency room. A CT scan, followed by a biopsy, revealed that I had pancreatic cancer. That’s how it all began.

Setting Treatment Goals

I ended up at University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center (UH) in Cleveland, Ohio. My oncologist, Dr. David Bajor, took a different approach with my treatment. Instead of referring to my diagnosis in stages, he set goals to make treatments possible. As an active person who thrives on exercise and activity, setting goals came naturally to me and put me in the right frame of mind.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was stage III and my tumor was bordering on inoperable. My first goal was to complete the right treatment that would make surgery possible. Surgical oncologist Dr. Lee Ocuin at UH was added to my team so we could work together toward that goal.

A Clinical Trial to Destroy the Cancer

As part of my treatment I enrolled in CASE2218, a clinical trial for the novel drug CPI-613. As part of this study, I was treated with a combination of CPI-613 and FOLFIRINOX chemotherapies to determine if the trial drug was safe and effective for participants with localized and unresectable pancreatic cancer—that is, cancer that cannot be removed completely via surgery.

Throughout the chemo and radiation, I continued my CrossFit regime five days a week.At the end of November, when my six months of chemo ended and my four weeks of radiation began, I met my goal to have surgery. My surgery date was set for February 9, 2022.

A Complex Surgery

The surgery was complicated. The tumor was large and it was located in a difficult spot—at the intersection of the superior mesenteric artery and the mesenteric vein. I became an expert in anatomy. This artery carries blood from the aorta to the pancreas and intestines. The veins drain the blood from the intestines and take it to the liver. Removing the tumor would require an eleven-hour Whipple procedure during which the surgeon would also peel the tumor off the artery wall and reconstruct the vein. It would require weeks of recuperation, but I was up for it.

I made it through the surgery and approached my recovery with the same determination and goal-oriented mindset as my initial chemotherapy. I faced some challenges—I nearly bled to death twice and received 35 units of blood. But on March 24th I was able to go home.

Getting Back to the Gym

My next goal after the surgery was to begin CrossFit training again. By June I was in my gym shoes and back at it. I started off barely being able to lift a 15 lb. barbell. As of December 2022, I can bench press 90 lbs., back squat 105 lbs., deadlift 165 lbs., and I can climb a 15 foot rope multiple times.

My latest goal? To continue to spread hope, encourage more people, and keep on living an active lifestyle.

My faith in God, my active lifestyle, the clinical trial, and my excellent doctors are responsible for getting me to this point. I am grateful to everything and everyone came together with this outcome.