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Beating the Odds of Pancreas Cancer

When Robert Gamble, 73, reflects on his life, he says he is grateful. At age 73, he lives just outside Idaho Falls, Idaho and speaks lovingly of his wife and family. Then he shares something remarkable. He was diagnosed with one of the deadliest cancers—pancreatic—in 2016. And he is still here to tell the tale.

"I got sick the day after my wife’s and my fortieth wedding anniversary," he says.

At first he thought it was just a bug. "But after three weeks, I decided to check with my doctor," Robert explains.

bob and wife

That’s the challenge with pancreas cancer: it can grow—and spread—for quite some time without symptoms. And because blood vessels and other vital organs surround the pancreas, surgery can be very challenging. Though only 3% of new cancer diagnoses are pancreas, it’s the third deadliest cancer. Fewer than 10% of patients are still living five or more years after diagnosis.

When standard tests didn’t explain Robert’s health concerns, he visited a local gastroenterologist—a doctor who specializes in the digestive system.

"It looked to him like cancer, but he couldn’t get a biopsy. He referred me to a doctor at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI)."

Robert and his wife made the three and a half hour drive to Salt Lake City. The first two tests at HCI did not confirm cancer. A CT scan followed, and Robert’s doctors told him he’d hear back in about three weeks.

Much sooner than expected, however, Robert got a call from Courtney Scaife, MD, chief for the Section of Surgical Oncology and General Surgery at HCI. Dr. Scaife specializes in gastrointestinal oncology. She told Robert he needed surgery. HCI scheduled him for three days later.

"When I woke up in the recovery room at 9 p.m., Dr. Scaife was at my bedside," Robert says. His doctors had learned a few things during the surgery, Dr. Scaife explained. First, they confirmed Robert had pancreas cancer. Second, they had no choice but to remove the pancreas.

"She apologized for taking the whole pancreas out," Robert said. "But I thought, the apology is not necessary. That saved my life."

The next morning, Robert learned from Dr. Scaife that the cancer was just one millimeter—about as thick as a pencil lead—away from a major artery. When he thinks back on it, Robert says he realizes how lucky he was. If the cancer had grown even a fraction more, surgery would have been impossible.

"We’re not even from Salt Lake, but people like us travel to HCI because no one is doing surgeries like that up here," Robert says.

After surgery, Robert had chemotherapy to address the lymph node where cancer had spread. He continues regular check-ups and has no sign of the disease more than three years later. Robert stays active in the HCI community by attending Pancreas Cancer Research Program Patient Advocacy meetings.

"I saw Dr. Scaife and she remembered me and treated me so well," Robert says. "I liked hearing from the nurses, doctors, and researchers to hear how far they’ve come. They talk about how they’re researching a medication for pancreas cancer that may not have the side effects of chemo."

Researchers at HCI have made significant strides in treatment of pancreas cancer, including the early stages of designing a medication that helps stop cancer cells in the pancreas from growing. While clinical trials are still far off, these new advances give researchers a clearer path forward for the next five to ten years.

Meanwhile, Robert continues to spend time with his family. He enjoys scenic drives around Idaho and stays involved with his church. And he continues to celebrate wedding anniversaries with his wife.

If you have a family history of pancreas cancer, you may benefit from pancreas cancer screening. Contact HCI's Family Cancer Assessment Clinic at 801-587-9555 to learn more.