Pancreatic Cancer Survivor
Diagnosed at age 64 with stage IIB “resectable” pancreas cancer
- Treated with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery as part of a clinical study
- Receives CT scans quarterly to look for any signs of recurring disease
- Recurrence in Dec. 2013 treated with surgery and chemotherapy
Robert (Bob) Lowe will confess to being a “typical” man when it comes to taking care of himself.
“I’d had a gradual, dull ache in my abdomen for three months that went away with a couple of Tylenol,” Bob says. “I never told my wife about it.”
But after a while, his home remedy didn’t work anymore and Bob decided to read up in a medical book they had at home about the pain he was having. He read through the symptoms for several abdominal illnesses and had an inkling that he could have pancreas cancer.
Without telling his wife Susan about his notions, Bob went to see his local doctor, who thought Bob likely had gall stones. A CT (computed tomography) scan confirmed Bob’s suspicions however: he had pancreas cancer in the tail of the pancreas wrapped around the artery going to his spleen.
Referred by his doctor to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Bob says it was “the best choice that could have been made. The care was superb from day one.”
Bob arrived at SCCA and met with a team of doctors. He didn’t know this was called the Pancreas Cancer Specialty Clinic. He only knew that a team of caring doctors including Gary Mann, MD, BCh, a professor of surgery from University of Washington School of Medicine; Andrew L. Coveler, MD, assistant professor of medical oncology from University of Washington; and Wui-Jin Koh, MD, medical director for radiation oncology at SCCA, UW Medicine, and SCCA Radiation Oncology at Northwest Hospital was there to help him figure out his next steps.
Bob, with his wife Susan, met with this team for about two hours and in the end, he was presented with three options.
The first option was to manage his symptoms without chemotherapy and surgery. “This would clearly not be curative,” says Dr. Coveler. And, this wasn’t really an option Bob was willing to entertain.
The second option was to have surgery right away and remove the cancer that could be seen. This is the conventional option, but the survivability is only about 22 percent in five years.
The third option was one that Bob welcomed most, and that was to participate in a clinical study that included chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery.
“We all favored the third option,” Bob says. “It showed promise of significantly improving the 22 percent survivability rate. I also liked the idea of being helpful by being in a trial. If you have to go through something like this why not see if the experience might in some way benefit others.”
Treatment on a clinical study
Before he began treatment, Bob and Susan met with a pharmacist, who went over all of the side effects of the drugs he would be given.
“It was almost enough to make me want to say forget it and just get surgery,” Bob says.
His treatment began on January 24, 2011 and consisted of three 21-day cycles of chemotherapy with gemcitabine, docetaxel, and capecitabine followed by two weeks of radiation with chemotherapy with capecitabine and oxaliplatin. Then he would receive four weeks of rest before having surgery.
“It is true that everybody usually suffers through treatment like this,” Bob says. “But for whatever reason I did not.” Bob went through the chemotherapy and amazingly experienced minimal side effects. He was able to work during his chemotherapy treatments until he had surgery.
On May 11, 2011, his tumor 23 percent smaller after the chemotherapy and radiation, Bob had surgery. The cancer had attached to part of Bob’s stomach creating a more complicated surgery. Bob had to have his spleen, several lymph nodes, a part of an adrenal gland, and 40 percent of his pancreas removed. He went home on May 17 with five stapled incisions from the robotic surgery and a drain tube in his abdomen.
After he recovered from surgery, Bob began phase II of his treatment regimen that included four two-week periods of chemotherapy with gemcitabine and oxaliplatin and two additional four-week chemotherapy cycles with gemcitabine.
Living as a cancer survivor
Bob is scheduled for CT scans every three months for the next three to five years to keep an eye out for any recurrence. Despite the statistics that say he has only a 22 percent chance of surviving this cancer, Bob is optimistic.
“My mother died at 63 of liver cancer. My father died at 65 of heart disease. I was 64 when this started,” Bob says. He’s surpassed both of his parents now. He and Susan have been married for 35-plus years. They have several children and grandchildren. Bob retired from his flight test engineer career at Boeing in April 2014, and he and Susan are building a house on Puget Sound.
Treatment for recurrence
In December 2013, Bob's regular CT scan picked up a small lesion on his liver. Dr. Coveler treated him with chemotherapy and after his doctors were confident that there was only one spot, Dr. Park surgically removed it. Once his 11-month chemotherapy regimen is over, all indicators are that Bob might just be alright from here on out.
“When I go to SCCA for appointments now, Dr. Coveler and I talk about airplanes more than me. There’s just nothing to talk about.”