Survivor Stories
October 20, 2023 • 4 Min

A New Radiation Therapy Helped Me Beat Cancer

Connie Harrington

pancreatic cancer patient Connie Harrington and her husband
  • Abdominal pain after eating led to diagnosis
  • Tumor wrapped around the superior mesenteric artery
  • My oncologist helped me find MRI-guided radiation therapy

In December 2021, I developed abdominal pain after eating meals.

It progressed from mild to severe over a period of three months. At first I attributed the discomfort to my age — I was, after all, approaching my mid-70s.  But it got worse and worse. So I decided to visit my doctor, and I’m so glad I did.

The first thing we did was blood work, which showed that I had an elevated CA 19-9 cancer antigen level of 295 — a huge distance from the healthy range of 0-35. A follow-up CT scan revealed that I had a tumor wrapped around the head of my pancreas; it had grown into the mesentery and was wrapped around the superior mesenteric artery. The official diagnosis was pancreatic adenocarcinoma. Unfortunately, I was not a candidate for surgery based on the location of the tumor in the mesentery.

Shrinking the Tumor

I began my treatment with Dr. Donald Northfelt, a wonderful oncologist at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Arizona. Dr. Northfelt felt that the current “best practice” for treating my type of tumor was chemo followed by radiation. The goal was to shrink the tumor enough so that I could become a candidate for surgery. I started chemo treatments two weeks after my diagnosis and continued doing them three out of every four weeks for a total of six months.

By the end of six months, the chemo managed to shrink my tumor significantly. However, the radiation offered at Mayo wasn’t going to work for me after all. The tumor was too close to my other abdominal organs and radiation could damage them. My doctors explained that my best option, since I was still not a candidate for surgery or regular radiation, was MRI-guided radiation. They recommend Dr. Michael Chuong at Miami Cancer Institute in Florida as their research indicated he was the “best!”

Switching Hospitals to Try a New Radiation Therapy

MRI-guided radiation, which can image and treat cancer simultaneously, has been available at the Miami Cancer Institute for five years. This radiation therapy seemed appropriate for me since it could target my tumor precisely without damaging the surrounding organs.

Despite living 2,400 miles away, my husband and I decided that going to Dr. Chuong and receiving MRI-guided radiation was my best option for a longer life. In August 2022, we made the trek from Scottsdale, Arizona, to Miami for two weeks where I received the protocol recommended by Dr. Chuong. I underwent treatment once a day for five days and then remained in Miami for an extra two days to recover.

Previous Surgeries Cause Complications

I was told that there would be very few, if any, side effects and that I would not feel anything during the treatment sessions. The latter was very true as at no time during treatment did I experience pain or discomfort. However, I had two surgeries in the biliary area many years prior to my cancer. I believe this is what made things a little complicated . . .

When I was in my thirties, I had my gallbladder removed. Then, after experiencing significant pain following the surgery, I had a second surgery to correct some complications that arose from the first. Despite the corrections, I continued to have periodic pain from biliary spasms for 40 years. In other words, I had a pre-existing pancreatic problem. In the two weeks following my MRI-guided treatment, I experienced significant pain, nausea, and vomiting, much like pancreatitis.

Dr. Chuong and his staff said they had never seen another patient with the type of side effects I was experiencing. I believe they occurred due to the sensitivity of my pancreas and the unique circumstances resulting from my prior surgeries. In all, the side effects lasted about two weeks and I have not experienced any subsequent pain or discomfort of any kind since then.

Feeling Like My Pre-Cancer Self

This treatment saved my life!  Within one month of my MRI-guided radiation therapy, I was feeling completely like my pre-cancer self. I have had numerous CT scans, a PET scan, and blood work that showed a cancer antigen level of 24 and “no active cancer.” My life and my future are right in front of me, and I am eager to keep going.