Survivor Stories
May 30, 2017 • 3 Min

Pancreatic Cancer Leads to a New Direction

Sheila Sky Kasselman

pancreatic cancer survivor Sheila Sky Kasselman
  • Jaundice leads to a diagnosis
  • Chemotherapy and radiation treatment before surgery
  • A Whipple procedure removes my tumor
  • Genetic testing in the future
  • Recovery leads to starting a foundation to raise awareness about pancreatic cancer

In September of 2007, I was found to have a very small tumor at the head of the pancreas, which changed my life in an instant.

For the ten months before my diagnosis I was a mess. I suffered from depression, I lost weight, I was nauseous and exhausted. I also became diabetic (only temporarily at that point) and had sludge in my gallbladder. But it wasn’t until my bile duct collapsed and I became jaundiced that a diagnosis was made. My tumor was too small to be seen in a CT scan so pancreatic cancer was initially ruled out. My doctors noted that I had what they thought was a pancreatic cyst; this turned out to be a tumor. When I had a biopsy the doctors finally were able to confirm that I had adenocarcinoma of the pancreas.

Diagnosis and Recovery

The excellent team of doctors at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit went into action. Because my tumor was small and my cancer was confined to the pancreas, it was staged as Ia. I had chemotherapy with Xeloda (capecitabine) and radiation simultaneously for six weeks with radiation oncologist Dr. Kenneth Levin. After that I had a complete Whipple procedure, performed by Dr. Vic Velonavich (now with the University of South Florida) in January of 2008. I had no chemotherapy after my surgery. I was tested for the BRCA gene at Henry Ford right after my surgery. I am planning to start genetic testing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in the near future.

My Life as a Pancreatic Cancer Activist

As I recovered from my surgery, I began Sky Foundation (Sky is my maiden name), despite having zero nonprofit experience except as a volunteer. Working with some colleagues and friends, the foundation began operation in June of 2008. Sky continues to grow throughout the Detroit Metro area. We are devoted to raising awareness and funding innovative research for this most daunting of all cancers.

I work full-time with two boards, three committees, and a young professionals’ group (YPG). Two of our major fundraisers are a Women’s Event, held in May, to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer and educate women about the disease, and an annual luncheon in November, at the MGM Grand Hotel in Detroit. The YPG also has a walk/run this year as Team Sky in a marathon in Detroit.

In September, I will be a 10-year survivor! I am beyond grateful for my third act and will continue to work as long as I can. I will be 77 in August of 2017, so Sky is also doing succession planning. Every day is a challenge and a celebration. My goal is saving lives and providing hope to patients and families who are diagnosed with pancreas cancer.

Sheila passed away from pancreatic cancer complications 16 years after her initial diagnosis. She made pancreatic cancer her life’s mission, creating Sky Foundation to raise awareness and fund research into the disease. She was a tireless advocate and will be sorely missed by family, friends, and advocacy colleagues.

Watch Sheila tell her story in “I Didn’t Expect to Be Doing This.”