Jean Dunkle is the kind of person who, if you happen to call while she is shopping, will stand in the grocery store to chat with you about her cancer experience. She’s the kind of woman who wears a purple hat and a red dress to meet her friends for tea. She is the kind of miracle who has survived pancreatic adenocarcinoma—the most dangerous form of pancreas cancer—for nearly 10 years with no sign of slowing down.
Jean received a diagnosis of pancreas cancer that had spread to the spleen on June 11, 2004. Sean Mulvihill, MD, professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Utah School of Medicine and a Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) physician, removed her entire spleen and much of her pancreas as the first phase of her cancer treatment. In fact, Jean’s cancer surgery was among the last performed at the University of Utah Hospital. HCI first opened its cancer hospital and operating rooms on July 1 of that year.
Like most pancreas cancer patients, Jean received a prognosis that was far from encouraging. “Six months was what people kept telling me. I just never had the feeling that was going to happen; I’m not sure why,” Jean says. “I had so much faith in Dr. Mulvihill and the people at HCI and the University Hospital. I tell you, they only hire angels.”
After the surgery, she had eight weeks of radiation and chemotherapy treatments. “I had chemo for three hours every Monday morning, and radiation five days a week,” she says. She suffered many complications, but gradually overcame them all. After her treatment was complete, Jean returned for follow-up visits with her cancer care team. As the years went by and the cancer showed no sign of returning, the follow-ups grew less and less frequent. “I’m down to seeing Dr. Mulvihill once a year now,” she says.
These days, Jean spends her time enjoying life and her activities in the Red Hat Society, an organization for women over fifty who take a bold approach to aging. The society’s motto comes from a poem by Jenny Joseph: When I am an old woman I shall wear purple / With a red hat that doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me. “We get together twice a month, and I’m going to their convention in Texas soon,” she says. Jean calls her bold approach to life her “theory,” and she states it in just a few words. “I’m going to live, live, live until I die.” She is much too busy living to spend time thinking about the other.