Finding Hope Beyond the Statistics
After hearing that someone you care about has pancreatic cancer, one of the first things you confront is the reality of statistics. The National Cancer Institute estimates that 43,920 people developed pancreatic cancer last year and about 15% of those are alive today.
But there are long-term survivors. They do exist—and they often thrive. And their stories can serve as inspirations for others confronting this resident foe.
Kim Duhart is an example of one who has battled through this disease and come out the other side. She now is an active advocate — sharing her difficult journey as a voice of hope.
In April of 1999, after more than a year of recurring flu-like symptoms and abdominal pains, 41-year-old Duhart finally made an appointment to see her doctor upon developing itching all over her body.
Initially believed to have gallstones, Duhart underwent an ultrasound and was prepped for surgery. Unfortunately, the ultrasound detected something much worse — on her pancreas there was a clear outline of a tumor that was four centimeters in size.
Shortly after, Duhart underwent a Whipple procedure, performed by Lynt B. Johnson, MD, MBA, chair of the Department of Surgery at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, the clinical partner of Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.
During the course of surgery, it was confirmed that the cancer had not spread to other organs or lymph nodes. According to the National Cancer Institute, only 8 percent of cases nationwide are diagnosed before the cancer has spread beyond the pancreas. Duhart left the hospital feeling hopeful about her prognosis.
Any Tool to Survive
However, that hope turned somber upon Duhart's first follow-up visit, when she was informed that, even with a successful resection and aggressive chemotherapy treatment, the chance of recurrence of her pancreatic cancer was high.
"Any tool that you have, use it to survive," were the words of advice offered by her oncologist, John L. Marshall, MD, chief of hematology/oncology and director of the Ruesch Center for the Cure of Gastrointestinal Cancers at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. Faced with the possibility of not being around long-term for her son and husband, Duhart vowed to focus on not becoming another statistic.
She began with some immediate lifestyle changes. Duhart overhauled her diet, adding in abundant fruits and vegetables for their antioxidant properties. She even went as far as having all her metal fillings removed.
Yet one of the biggest adjustments Duhart made was a change in attitude. She was determined to live each day to its fullest, knowing that the next was not guaranteed.
While undergoing treatment, Duhart sought to become an expert on her disease so she could fight back more effectively. After scouring the internet with dismal results, she came across an online discussion board dedicated to pancreatic cancer, which happened to be the start of what is now the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN). Participating in discussion groups became Duhart's support line as she coped with her diagnosis. Yet the meetings, in particular, could be emotionally difficult.
"You would look around the room and you couldn't be sure of who would make it through to the next meeting," Duhart recalls.
Yet Duhart says she drew tremendous support from her oncologists and nurses.
"Fighting cancer is a team effort; don't underestimate the advantages your medical support team can offer."
After five years had passed, Duhart asked Marshall on one of her routine visits when she would no longer need to see him. "There is no protocol to say when you are cured," Marshall responded and, with that, made it her last appointment.
Living in the Now
Since her initial days of diagnosis, Duhart promised herself to no longer put off all the things she wanted to do and see. The first activity she crossed off her to-do list was hiking through the gorgeous terrain of Sedona, Ariz.; she is currently planning to hike portions of the Appalachian Trail stretching from Georgia to Maine.
Now 13 years later with no recurrence, Duhart feels she has beaten the odds stacked against her. Her personal struggle to find other survivors has led her to become actively involved with multiple advocacy groups, including the American Cancer Society; and PanCAN's Patient and Liaison Services' Survivor and Caregiver Network (PALS) program, made up of volunteers throughout the country who are available to communicate one-to-one with those who have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, their loved ones, or anyone looking for that type of connection.
"I know how much it would have meant to me to be able to speak to someone who had survived pancreatic cancer," Duhart says of her time during diagnosis and treatment, "so I am glad to be able to provide this hope to other people fighting this disease."
Duhart's primary message to those facing the struggle with pancreatic cancer is that "you are not a statistic, or limited by numbers, but a living person for whom there is still hope."
By Nicole LaFragola
Ruesch Center staff
Published April 18, 2013