Combination of Optimism and Realism Carries 10-year Survivor Through

When it comes to fighting cancer, optimism is a defense strategy.

At least, it is according to Eric Adler, a 10-year pancreatic cancer survivor.

"I'm an optimist by nature so my advice to anybody would be to 'be an optimist.' And I don't mean an optimist if you have cancer – I mean, just be an optimist in life."

Eric Adler and Family


Adler, 49, was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on March 24, 2003, just three days before he turned 39. However, it was kidney stones, and not cancer, that first sent him to the emergency room of MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

"In the emergency room they did an image of my kidney stones and found this massive tumor. There wasn't any question that my tumor was going to be an unusual or impossible situation. It was very intertwined with everything. You can't have a tumor almost the size of a football and have it not be difficult."

Adler was then seen by John Marshall, MD, at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. His case required removing his kidney stones before the tumor could be excised. Further complicating matters was the overall poor prognosis for pancreatic cancer patients. Yet Adler was not one to let the odds get to him.

He recalls thinking: "'Odds are that this thing is going to kill me. Every day now, I've got to begin figuring out how to decrease those odds.' And that was it. We got started."

Realistic Acceptance
Adler reasoned that by accepting his situation, he could move on to figuring out how to fight his illness.

"I cried for about 10 or 15 seconds – literally – and that was it. I sort of very quickly said, if I've got about five or six weeks, how many of those days can I spend on mourning? I probably want to get that process over with pretty quickly."

Although he accepted the possibility of death, Adler also did not give in to that possibility.

"I began to brace myself to begin to think about things in such a way that there was nothing that could happen that I couldn't accept."

A Professional Perspective

Adler attributes his positive perspective to his career as a social entrepreneur.

"When I was diagnosed with cancer, I sort of approached it as an entrepreneurial venture. Where are the opportunities? What can we do here? Who do we need? What do we need? What can we do to improve our odds between today and tomorrow?"

Adler is the co-founder of the SEED Foundation, Incorporated, a nonprofit organization that opens and operates college preparatory public boarding schools for at-risk children. For Adler, it was his work with these young adults that gave his own life a clearer focus.

"I work with a lot of families that have it pretty tough – I have seen what a hard life looks like. If I get cancer and the cancer kills me 40 or 50 years earlier than I otherwise might die – if you average that enormous stroke of bad luck with all the good luck in my life, I still come out on the positive side of the ledger. There is no rational analysis of my life that does not come to that conclusion."

A Few Stormy Seas

Adler's optimism did not come without a few challenges, however.

Post surgery, he experienced gastrointestinal complications that prevented him from eating quantities of food for months. By the end of his treatments, Adler had lost about 55 pounds. He jokes that he was lucky to have been diagnosed at a point when he could afford to lose some extra weight on his frame.

Then, about five years after his surgery, Adler thought he was going blind. Luckily, his wife, a former resident at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, pinpointed the problem – a vitamin A deficiency due to his digestive issues. He now takes large amounts of vitamin A, as well as vitamin D for his slight osteoporosis. During the process, he also became diabetic.

Nine years post surgery, Adler had to undergo testing due to lesions on his liver that at first appeared to be metastatic cancer. After four weeks of testing, doctors confirmed the spots on his liver were actually an infection, treatable with antibiotics.

Despite the complications, Adler remains upbeat.

"It wasn't all smooth sailing, but … I'm here!"

Paying it Forward

Adler realizes that not everyone has the resources – or the wellspring of positivity – that he did to confront his disease.

"I knew that if I'd had a very difficult life and then this thing had come along, it would have been very difficult for me to be positive. Even the worst outcome here, I didn't have any reason to be angry about it," he said. "That logic then pervaded everything for me. What it did was it really became empowering for me about everything in life."

By Cherisse Cobrand, Georgetown Lombardi Communications
Published November 19, 2013