DUBOIS — By sharing her own survival story, a DuBois woman tries to offer a positive attitude to those diagnosed with cancer.
Kathy Shaffer was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April of 2014 and happily shares her story of survival five years later.
Pancreatic cancer is the ninth most common cancer in women and the tenth most common in men. It is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths, and accounts for seven percent of all cancer deaths, according to The American Cancer Society.
Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to diagnose because there are no specific, cost-effective detection methods to find early-stage pancreatic cancer in those with no symptoms.
Shaffer first noticed something was wrong in January 2014. She was experiencing a dull pain in her ribs and around her back. She had had a pulled muscle there before, and thought that was the problem again. By February, however, she was experiencing nausea, and went to the doctor at the end of the month.
“People don’t go to the doctor soon enough. Catching it early is so important,” Shaffer said of her diagnosis.
The doctor ordered blood work which showed elevated pancreatic enzymes, and resulted in the ordering of a sonogram and CT scan. When she had her diagnosis, she went to Penn Highlands Dubois, but none of the doctors handled the kind of surgery she needed, so she went to Pittsburgh.
Her oncologist in Pittsburgh ordered chemotherapy that she could undergo in DuBois. She had chemo once a week for three months to shrink the tumor. She also went to Pittsburgh for 19 days of radiation, and took oral chemo at the same time.
After the treatments, the doctors waited six weeks to undertake more scans. The scans showed the tumor hadn’t shrunk much, so she began another three months of chemo. By this time, it was February of 2015, a year since Shaffer had first gone to the doctor.
After the second round of the Chemo, the tumor still hadn’t shrunk. Shaffer’s oncologist sent her to Johns Hopkins Hospital because the surgeon in Pittsburgh was hesitant to do her surgery with the cancer wrapped around blood vessels.
“Along the way I had three different doctors tell me that I should avoid getting the procedure, but I couldn’t avoid it,” Shaffer said.
Once Shaffer got to Johns Hopkins, she had a surgery scheduled within a month and had the procedure — called the Whipple Procedure — in March 2015. The surgery involved the removal of the head of the pancreas, part of the stomach, part of the small intestines, and gallbladder. Once the surgeon was working, he elected to take her whole pancreas and spleen as well.
She was in the hospital after surgery for two weeks, then was back with an infection for 15 more days after going home.
“I’m here now, and I’m doing well,” Shaffer said. “I’ve been very blessed. It wasn’t easy.”
She is diabetic from the surgery, and has to wear an insulin pump and count carbs. She said it’s amazing what the pancreas does for us without our even knowing it. She also goes in for scans every three to four months to make sure she’s still doing okay.
“I had a lot of support from my family, from my church family. So many people had me on their prayer list and I really believe God healed me. He gives them (the doctors) the ability to do what they do, but I think he does the healing,” Shaffer said.