“No doctor—and no patient either—should ever stop hoping,” says Janet Gill, a cancer survivor and Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) patient. “You might be the lottery winner, no matter the odds.”
What happened to Janet seems miraculous, considering when she was diagnosed with pancreatic adenocarcinoma in June 2010, her doctors said the odds of surviving another eight months were extremely slim. These days, she keeps busy at her home just outside Twin Falls, Idaho, with a “big, huge” vegetable garden, a pair of milk goats, and 25 chickens.
After her diagnosis, Janet could not have surgery immediately because the tumor encroached on a major blood vessel. She had several weeks of radiation and chemotherapy at HCI to reduce the tumor’s size—about that of a walnut when she was diagnosed—so surgery could be attempted.
“Use of radiation in pancreas cancer is controversial,” says Christopher Anker, MD, the HCI radiation oncologist on Janet’s cancer care team. “But, in combination with chemotherapy, one of the most established reasons is to help kill and potentially shrink the tumor so all the remaining disease can be removed at the time of surgery.”
Janet was prepared for surgery at HCI later in 2010, but in the operating room it was determined the procedure could not be completed. “They found some lesions on my liver that they thought were metastases [cancer spreading from the original site], and the tumor was still encroaching on the vein,” Janet says. “They closed me up and sent me home. They basically said, ‘We think at the very most you might have two years to live.’”
Janet was not about to accept that answer. She had too many reasons not to give up—for example, her teenage son and another older son with special needs. And her husband, Dan, also refused to accept it. “He was continually saying, ‘You’ve got to keep fighting. This can’t be the end,’” Janet says.
Under the care of a medical oncologist in the Boise area, she began a new course of chemo in January 2011. Days before starting chemo, “out of the blue” Janet says, “Dr. Anker called to see how I was doing.” She told him about her next round of treatment, and he asked her to send him copies of her post-treatment CT scan.
“I called because I expected Janet would be on her way to starting further chemo around that time,” says Anker. “I never forgot our original goal of getting Janet to her Whipple [pancreas surgery]. I understood she wasn’t done fighting this tumor, and I could see how well she handled radiation and chemo. I felt confident we could get her back to the operating room for a second chance.”
With the second chemo round completed in April 2011, Janet had a CT scan to assess her cancer status. As promised, she sent those scans to Dr. Anker at HCI.
“The follow-up scan couldn’t have looked better,” says Anker. “The tumor seemed to have disappeared, and all the liver lesions appeared to be cysts.” When he presented Janet’s scan for review at the cancer care team’s next treatment planning conference, the team agreed Janet was a good candidate for the Whipple.
Janet was scheduled for surgery with HCI surgeon Courtney Scaife, MD, on May 9, 2011, the day after Mother’s Day. After the surgery, pathology reports showed no invasive disease was left in the removed tissues. Since the surgery, Janet gets follow-up CT scans every three months. All of them have been clear of cancer.
Janet says, “You never know if you’re going to be in the percentage that’s successful, no matter how small that percentage is.” Dr. Anker agrees: “Janet’s story is proof of why patients should not lose hope, even when faced with intimidating odds.”
Learn more about pancreatic cancer in our cancer types and topics, or visit the Gastrointestinal Cancer Program webpages.