Survivor Stories
September 25, 2020 • 10 Min

Unexpected Blessings From My Pancreatic Cancer

Kelly Pankratz

pancreatic cancer patient Kelly Pankratz and her family
  • Kidney stones lead to discovery of tumor
  • Chemotherapy before surgery
  • Chemotherapy after surgery

It is funny how life changes in a blink of an eye.

At the start of 2018, I was 42 years old, married to my husband for 17 years, with a son and daughter and a newly adopted stray cat. I was not a cat person, but Purrgus the Cat entered my family’s life just when we were going to need him for his comfort—an unexpected blessing. I was a teacher, with 18 years at a job I absolutely loved going to each day. I worked out daily, drank green smoothies every morning, and never missed my annual checkups.

In early March, I began experiencing some pain in my lower abdomen and discomfort with urination. Although I usually saw my primary doctor, Dr. Jennifer Lochner, once or twice a year, now I was seeing her weekly. Dr. Lochner referred me to a urologist, who diagnosed kidney stones after an X-ray. I was so relieved that I finally knew what was causing my pain! Because of the size of the stones, both doctors wanted me to have a CT scan to determine if I would need to have them surgically removed.

On the morning of March 28th, 2018, I had my first-ever CT scan. I was feeling better and hoped that the kidney stones had passed because my family was scheduled to leave the next day on a Caribbean cruise for spring break. Several hours after the scan, I received a phone call from the urologist. She informed me that I needed surgery and should not go on the cruise in case the stones became infected while we were in the middle of the ocean. I was about to end the call when she said, “Also I wanted to mention one more thing, the radiologist noted . . . there is a mass . . . in your pancreas.” I felt the world come to a sudden stop. “What does that mean?” I asked. She told me that I needed to talk to my primary physician. I was beyond frazzled and upset. Dr. Lochner said, “I am going to be completely honest with you. The radiologist thinks it may be cancer.”

My kidney stones were my “lucky stones.” Without them, I never would have known I had this tumor. And I am beyond grateful for the radiologist who took the time to read my scan. My “lucky” stones and the radiologist were another unexpected blessing.

Testing and a Treatment Plan

The week after finding the tumor was one of the longest in my life. Instead of sailing the Caribbean, I underwent further medical evaluation at University of Wisconsin Health, Madison, to determine the characteristics of the tumor and the treatment plan. Before I had the mass biopsied, the doctor who performed the biopsy got in contact with the people who I like to refer to as my superheroes—the team who saved my life! They set up a special meeting to educate my family on what was happening and what the path forward might look like. I was so incredibly thankful for how they made time, on a late Friday afternoon, to be there for me.

First, I met my rock star surgical nurse, Crystal. She spoke with us as we waited for Dr. Daniel Abbott, my surgeon. Looking back, I feel that this meeting was one of the most important meetings we had during my entire journey. Crystal and Dr. Abbott took the time to educate us on the path forward. They talked with us in “people terms” and Dr. Abbott also made some very artistic drawings showing the anatomy of my pancreas. Let’s just say, I am glad he became a surgeon instead of an artist. Dr. Abbott then explained to me how the physicians work as a team to design the best possible treatment plan for me. It would not be just one doctor determining my path forward. I would have all these incredible brains working together to ultimately develop a plan to save my life! Nurse Crystal and Dr. Abbott connected with me in an instant. For the first time, since hearing the nightmare news, I felt hope.

Amazingly, Crystal went to the elementary school that I teach at. She also grew up on the same street where we had our first home. I instantly felt better. Coincidence . . . I don’t think so! Crystal has not only been my nurse but has become a dear friend. Another unexpected blessing.

The next week the mass was biopsied and determined to be adenocarcinoma of the pancreas. The following day, I was introduced to Dr. Nataliya Uboha, my oncologist and Dr. Michael Bassetti, the radiologist. As a team it was decided I would have eight rounds of FOLFIRINOX chemotherapy. From there we would determine if I would need radiation. Following that, I would have the tumor surgically removed. I was told that the rest of the year would be treatment and recovery. And in between all of this I got my “lucky stones” surgically removed.

Starting Treatment

After the treatment plan was decided, I met my next superhero, oncology nurse Stacy. She was my go-to person whenever I had ANY questions or concerns about my chemo treatment. She booked my appointments, educated me on the side effects of chemo, and would immediately answer any questions or concerns I had. It was so wonderful to have one person I could always be in direct contact with about my treatment. I will be forever grateful for her support!

Although I was scheduled for eight rounds of FOLFIRINOX, when I thought I was halfway done Dr. Uboha decided to add another four treatments to my regimen. Mentally this was tough because now I was only one-third of the way. I tried to take this all in stride because I knew that my doctor was up-to-date on medical research and best practice and doing whatever was in her power to make me cancer free. I had eight rounds of chemo before surgery and four rounds after. I hope that I never have to endure chemo again. It has been probably the hardest thing I have ever done.

During chemo, I also got the pleasure of receiving visits from my pharmacist Liz, another bright spot in the very dreaded chemo appointments. She always wanted to help me in any way she possibly could to ease my side effects from the nasty chemo. She took time to get to know me and to be part of my support system. And in another coincidence, her then boyfriend, now husband, ended up getting a job at my school.

After eight rounds of chemo, I had another scan, then met with my team of doctors. It is funny how as you sit in the waiting room, the doctors and nurses come in, and you want to try to read their facial expressions. Is this going to be good news or bad? What are they going to tell me? Dr. Abbott said, “Kelly, this is remarkable, we very rarely see the chemo shrinking the tumor this much. Whatever you, your family and friends are doing, tell them to keep doing it.” I felt the chills run through my body and my eyes filled with tears. All of the prayers, love, and support from my family, friends, and even strangers, made a miracle happen. My team decided I was ready for surgery. Time to get this unwanted tumor out of my body!

Up Next: Surgery!

August 27th, 2018, was the scariest day of my life. The surgery I was dreading for months was now here. I was going to have my spleen, gallbladder, and half of my pancreas removed to eradicate the cancerous mass. When I got to the hospital, I was told exactly what was going to happen and everyone made me comfortable. I felt at ease when I went to sleep, and as soon as I awoke, I was told the surgery went just as the team hoped. Dr. Abbott felt confident that he removed all of the cancer. The pathology results of the margins around the tumor did not show signs of cancer. Within a few hours of surgery I was in my room and recovering. I had this adrenaline rush from how well everything went. I had to have my sister Jill stop making me belly laugh, because it hurt so much.

Four days after my surgery, I started calling my place of recovery Resort UW instead of UW Hospital. I was so well cared for. I had some big tears saying goodbye to some of my amazing nurses and nursing assistants. These connections were something I NEVER THOUGHT about happening while I was in the hospital! I believe angels come into our lives at just the right time and in the most unexpected places—another unexpected blessing.

The month of September was the worst month. The chemo side effects were catching up with me—my hair was thinning at a rapid pace and I had terrible neuropathy in my hands and feet. I ended up with an infection as I recovered from surgery. But my friends and family showed support and love, with cards or little gifts.

After I healed, it was time to start up the chemo again. I secretly hoped everyone would forget about the last four rounds of chemo, which were really tough mentally. It is crazy how one’s brain works. Just sitting in the “chemo chair” I would get ill. I have never experienced anything like this. Finally, on December 5th, 2018, I was finished with treatment! I made it!

Since treatment, I have had several scans, and as of July 2020 I am cancer free. Although I will always be blessed with my lovely scars, I am finally reaching the reward at the end of the race: my oncologist is finally letting me have my IV port removed tomorrow. This small device, in the upper right side of my chest, has been a daily reminder of my first day of chemo. Since my final treatment in December 2018, I have had to go to the Carbone Cancer Center monthly, to get my port flushed. I have had to look at this lump in my chest every day and think: Will I need to use this device again because the cancer will come back? I have always felt like it has been an intruder in my body, that constant reminder whispering to me. It has been more emotional for me than I was expecting. It is so symbolic. I am finally undergoing the last stage of metamorphosis. I am going to begin my life as a butterfly.

Life after the surgery and treatment has been harder than I anticipated.  I was used to seeing and talking to my medical team often and all of sudden I was on my own.  What now, what if the cancer returns? You would think one would feel elated after getting the cancer-free card but it is not quite like that. It could be called separation anxiety from my medical team.

Lessons and Gifts

I still wake up every morning and can’t believe what I have endured over the past two years. That said, there have been so many lessons and gifts I have had the chance to witness. I have never felt so much love and support. People are truly amazing. I could actually feel the love and support embracing me from family, friends, and even strangers.

Having this type of cancer, I do know that the odds are stacked against me, but I am not going to focus on the statistics. I am my own statistic. I recently read an article about an oncologist on his cancer journey and how having cancer changed his practice. One of the questions this doctor learned to ask his patients was “Why do you want to fight cancer?” I have pondered this question. Yes, there are all the big reasons why I choose to fight. Obviously, to see my kids hit all their life milestones. I want to grow old with my husband. But for me the reason may be simpler. I have learned it is about all the simple things, the day-to-day struggles and successes, that make the big picture. The unexpected blessings. The beauty of living. And that is why I choose to fight!

“In the face of uncertainty, there is nothing wrong with hope!” O. Carl Simonton