Patient Stories

Pancreatic Cancer Survivor

Stan Barer

  • stan barer, pancreatic cancer survivorDiagnosed with pancreatic cancer after experiencing leg cramps
  • Participated in a Phase II clinical study of pre-surgery chemotherapy and radiation therapy, surgical tumor removal, and post-surgery chemotherapy
  • Previously treated for melanoma and prostate cancer

Stan Barer has been deep in the woods with three separate cancer diagnoses over the last two decades. Most recently, from October 2010 to May 2011, he participated in a rigorous clinical study through Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) for pancreatic adenocarcinoma. Standing here today, Stan credited his survival to the support of his family and “the outstanding care at SCCA”—along with his fighter’s attitude and sense of humor.

Stan lost much of his thumb to melanoma 20 years ago and won his battle with prostate cancer about a decade after that. “Those cancer cells really like me,” he laughed. “I have been very, very fortunate.”

Unlike prostate cancer, there are no screening tests for pancreatic cancer. And unlike melanoma, there are no visible external markers. “My only pancreatic cancer symptoms were leg cramps,” said Stan. “But my primary doctor, Omri Touboul, MD, was a great detective.”

Getting the Right Diagnosis—and the Right Treatment Protocol

Finding Stan’s third cancer took two months of exhaustive tests. It seemed to him as though “many doctors gave me every kind of test known to man. Finally they put a camera down my throat—and that’s how they found it.” The procedure, called an esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD), produced a picture of the upper part of Stan’s gastrointestinal tract. It was paired with an endoscopic ultrasound (EUS). The EUS revealed a mass where the tail of the pancreas joined the body of the pancreas.

When he heard his diagnosis, Stan knew exactly what he was contending with. “Two of my colleagues had lost their lives to pancreatic cancer the year before. And everything I’d ever heard about pancreatic cancer was grim—the statistics, at least at that time, were that 86 percent of those diagnosed died very quickly.”

But Stan wasn’t about to call it quits. “My thinking was, if I have a shot at this thing, if the cancer hasn’t metastasized, then I’m going to fight like hell to make it.” He immediately got in touch with SCCA’s Paul Lange, MD, to discuss his options. “Paul had treated me seven years before for prostate cancer. We met for coffee, and I told him my news. That evening he had me into UW Medicine for tests.

“My first reaction was, ‘Let’s get the tumor out right away,’” Stan said. But the course of treatment he ultimately chose was an SCCA Phase II study initiated by Sam Whiting, MD, and since pursued by Andrew L. Coveler, MD. The study protocol took a different route. It began with a series of chemotherapy and radiation treatments prior to surgery; patients were then treated with additional post-surgical chemotherapy.

As Dr. Coveler explained, “The standard of care for pancreas cancer is surgery, followed by about six months of chemotherapy [gemcitabine] and a consideration of radiation therapy. The success of the regimen is not very good.” Added Stan, “I was told I was the oldest person to take part in the protocol. I was about 70 then. And I was delighted to be accepted.”

“The Treatment Was Tough, But the Staff Was Wonderful”

For about four months, Stan said, “I had chemo and radiation and … I was as sick as a dog. I was hospitalized two or three times. The theory is basically: ‘We’re going to try to kill the cancer before the treatment kills you.’ The treatment was tough, but the staff was wonderful. Everyone was outstanding. And my attitude was pretty good.” Dr. Coveler added that for most of the younger patients in the study, the treatment wasn’t such a grueling experience; Stan’s age made it harder for him to bounce back from the chemo and radiation therapies.

By late January, “the treatment had worked. When they did the surgery the tumor was much smaller, and the cancer hadn’t metastasized,” Stan said. His doctors removed most of his pancreas. His spleen was also removed to ensure a complete removal of the tumor, the vascular bed near the tumor, and the lymph nodes. He was then treated with additional chemotherapy through May 2011. “Fortunately,” he said, “it all came out the right way. And I’m sitting here right now.”

Life Post-Treatment

One thing that helped get Stan through the rigors of his treatment protocol was looking forward to going fly-fishing again. “Everyone needs something that absolutely takes them away, and for me, that’s fishing. I don’t think about anything else when I do that.”

Before he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Stan had booked a fly-fishing trip to Bolivia for the following summer. “When I was so sick during treatment, I kept thinking—I’ve already paid for this trip, and my wife and I are going to go. And so I finished my treatment in May, and we were there in July. I was still very weak at that point; I’d lost about 50 pounds. I had trouble standing up in the river.” But his skills at casting came through. “I would just sit on a rock or lay down in the water and cast. Approaching it like that, I didn’t get swept away.”

Since that time, Stan said, his strength has returned—and the leg cramps that first alerted him to his disease are gone. But he still experiences some side effects of his treatment. “I have neuropathy in my feet—which includes some numbness and tingling—and somewhat in my hands as well. The neuropathy in my feet affects my balance a little bit and certain things that I used to do. But that’s a small trade-off for being alive.”

Because of his past experiences with cancer, Stan and his doctors remain vigilant. “I now have a full body scan every three months.”

Always Looking Forward

No one knows better than Stan how much it meant to his survival to get a relatively early diagnosis with pancreatic cancer. “Because of this, the cancer did not have a chance to metastasize.” Stan is a long-time supporter of cancer research at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, one of SCCA’s founding organizations. He voiced his hope that ongoing research will continue to yield better answers for pancreatic cancer patients. In the fall of 2013, he spoke at a Swim Across America (SAA) fundraising event on Lake Washington to acknowledge the contributions of volunteers and participants. SAA supports pancreatic cancer research at SCCA’s Pancreatic Cancer Specialty Clinic.

“Having a near-death experience—when you are fortunate enough to survive it—gives you perspective on the value of life and what your priorities are,” Stan said. “Time is the most precious thing I have. Cancer statistics look backward. But when you get cancer, you’re looking forward. The questions for us as human beings are: ‘Am I going to make it—and how is this going to impact my family?’”

Throughout his career, Stan has clearly made his mark, as a prominent attorney and businessman; in U.S.-China trade relations (he played a key role in negotiations that opened sea trade between the U.S. and China more than three decades ago); as the founding co-chair of the U.S.-China Clean Energy Forum; and as a former Regent of the University of Washington. “What I am most proud of is my family,” he said, adding, “We are very fortunate to have SCCA and the Hutch here in Seattle.”

Eloise Sheldon