My account of recovering from a pancreatic tumor

danandrossI gave a speech at the CANSUR cancer research fundraising event at Circular Quay tonight. This was organised by the surgeon who operated on me for pancreatic cancer, Professor Ross Smith. He continues to do amazing research into the field.

When I saw Ross Smith the first time he looked through my CT-scans very thoughtfully and said he’d like to confer with his colleagues in the radiology department. The next time I saw him, he told me that I had a tumour in pancreas and lumps in my liver, and that if I had surgery right away, I would probably have a few more good years.

That was a bit of a shock but I am a pragmatic Australian who believes in “what will be will be” so I signed up for the operation which would take place straight after my sister’s wedding in about a week’s time.

tumorRoss had warned me that there was a risk that I might not come out the other side of the operation, because what he was going to attempt to do was complex and involved peeling the tumor away from one of the largest arteries in the body and reconstructing a major vein.

I realised it was a serious thing, but I didn’t fully realise until I woke up after the operation, which had taken 10 and a half hours. I was breathing on a ventilator, and in a hazy morpheine fog, I remember my parents remarking that I had 11 tubes coming out of me.

I spent the next seven weeks in hospital. During that time, I was fed with a milky white fluid pumped directly into my heart, called “Total Parenteral Feeding”. This was essential because my digestive system was extremely fragile after the operation and I couldn’t drink or eat anything. Luckily, Ross turned out to be a world expert in intravenous nutrition and has worked with manufacturers to perfect the formula for optimum patient recovery. It was then I started getting gthe picture about Ross.

Shortly after my operation Ross visited me and my parents in my room with an ecstatic look on his face. It turned out that my pancreatic tumour was an extremely rare type of essentially benign tumour that doesn’t spread and can almost always be successfully treated with surgery. The lumps in my liver were something completely unrelated – just areas of tissue growth.

IMG_0843I also found out that during the operation, Ross had taken surgery to its known limits. Pancreatic cancer does not have a very good prognosis – in many cases people who are diagnosed with it die within a year. He had felt particularly saddened that a young person like me would have this prognosis and he wanted to go as far as he could to improve this. He actually changed the anatomy of my pancreas during the operation, to give me a sports-model, modified pancreas, something many surgeons would be quite reluctant to do given the risks.

I also asked Ross what caused my tumour. “I’d have a nobel prize if I knew that,” he joked. The reality is, other than well known linked factors like heavy drinking, the actual root cause of pancreatic cancer isn’t known.

I learned some startling facts, though. Pancreatic cancer is rare – and my type was extremely rare – but the death rate is rising to meet that of breast cancer in some segments of the community.

During my time in hospital, Ross visited me every day – most days twice a day. He was in on Christmas day to see me, too. Twice. Since the operation I have had many followup consultations with Ross and what has struck me is that despite his heavy case load, he remains squarely focused on pushing research forward in this field at the worldwide forefront of cancer research. This is despite having very limited funding to work with, because pancreatic cancer doesn’t have the public recognition.

My operation was risky, but here I am today. I was incredibly lucky to have a surgeon who was prepared to push surgery to its known limits, and I now know him to be a man who is determined to push beyond the known limits through research.

Thank you Ross, and I hope that through the ongoing support of everyone here, you can continue to advance medical knowledge in this field.

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