Survivor Stories
July 18, 2016 • 3 Min

The Alien Inside Me

Kim Vernick

Pancreatic cancer patient Kim Vernick and her dog
  • Chemotherapy and radiation clinical trial before surgery
  • Surgery to remove the tumor, but the cancer returns
  • Proton radiation treatment, new for pancreatic cancer, is a success

This alien is cancer. Why me, I ask? I have never been sick a day in my life unless you count colds.

It’s 2010. I go to my doctor and say I have a stomach ache. He is 99 percent sure it is nothing, but he sends me over to the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center for a test just to be sure. I am 52 when I am told I have pancreatic cancer.

By the time I am first diagnosed, my tumor is already wrapped around blood vessels and arteries, so they cannot operate. So the goal is to shrink the tumor.

Finding a Clinical Trial

I go to Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center and participate in a clinical trial that combines chemotherapy and radiation. The chemo treatments of oxaliplatin, Avastin, and gemcitabine are given over two days. I do this for two weeks on and one week off, for four to eight treatments. Then I get radiation and around-the-clock 5-FU, for approximately eight weeks.

The clinical trial beats me up even more but increases the chances of reaching the goal of getting me to that surgery table. Dr. Weijing Sun, my oncologist (now at the University of Kansas Cancer Center), and Dr. James Metz, my radiation oncologist, get the alien.

Surgery to Remove the Tumor

Dr. Charles Yeo from Jefferson Hospital steps to the plate, after Dr. Sun and Dr. Metz kill the alien, and in May 2011 successfully removes many of my internal body parts. Apparently I do not need my gallbladder, nor my spleen, nor two-thirds of my pancreas. Fortunately, I am left with the part of my pancreas that is necessary to produce enzymes for digestion and to keep me from becoming diabetic. After the surgery I get more chemo. All of this goes on for almost a full year. I had rest periods in between but was not feeling well for a year.

The Cancer Returns

I was one year from surgery, drug-free, and feeling great when the doctors inform me that I have a suspicious thickening near my gastric junction, in the same place as before. My alien is back in the same area.

Dr. Metz and Dr. Ursina Teitelbaum are now ready for plan B and I am now ready for round two. Round two is chemotherapy with oxaliplatin and gemcitabine, and then protons, again with the 24-hour 5-FU pack. Proton radiation is a specialized form of radiation therapy. I asked about this therapy when I was first diagnosed but they were not using it for pancreatic cancer at the time.

Well, time has passed and round two was almost four years ago. I am feeling great and having fun living life. You need to be someplace that’s going to treat your pancreatic cancer. My doctors at Penn didn’t treat pancreatic cancer, they treated MY pancreatic cancer.

Watch Kim tell her story in “My Strength Comes From My Mother.”