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VOL. 133 | NO. 33 | Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Love at Center of Pancreatic Cancer Battle

By Michael Waddell

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This Valentine’s Day, Bartlett residents Kathryn and Tom Craig want to share their story of love and support as encouragement to those who are battling cancer with a loved one.

Kathryn is a five-year survivor of pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest known cancers. After being diagnosed in 2012, a stint was put into Kathryn’s bile duct to help her liver function properly, and she was referred to surgical oncologist Dr. Stephen Behrman, who then set up surgery to remove her tumor.

Only 20 percent of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer can have surgery.

“When you hear the word cancer, you always think the worst,” Tom said. “So your outlook changes on everything. Of course, the hardest time was between the diagnosis and something being done for her.”

Kathryn’s eight-hour Whipple surgery, as it is called, involved removing her gall bladder, bile duct, duodenum, some of her small intestines and stomach, and about half of her pancreas. Luckily, she had no complications after the October 2012 surgery and was back at work within nine weeks.

“I followed up with seven months of chemo and five weeks of radiation as a preventative measure,” Kathryn said. “Since that time over the past five and a half years, I’ve had good clear CAT scans the whole time.

“It takes a toll on you and your family, and it really changed the dynamics of our marriage,” she said. “Once I got sick and then I was recovering and went through treatment, he had to so many things that either we had done together or I had done. Now he has to remind me that I can’t do three or four activities in one day like I could in the past on the weekends.”

There is one statistic Kathryn does not like – about 80 percent of those who get Whipple surgery see a recurrence of their cancer, and she feels fortunate to not have had a recurrence. Last year, pancreatic cancer surpassed breast cancer as the third-leading cause of death in the U.S., and by 2020 pancreatic cancer is expected to surpass colorectal cancer in the second-leading position. Huge risk factors are obesity and smoking.

“Most people who are diagnosed with pancreas cancer ultimately die from that disease,” said Behrman, who works primarily with Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp. and is chairman of the Kosten Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research. “Even though the prognosis is not great – we only cure five to 10 percent of people with pancreas cancer – the treatments are markedly improved, especially in the past five to 10 years. Patients are certainly living longer than they did even a decade ago.”

Chemotherapy agents are much more effective in treating the disease and shrinking it down before surgery, and Behrman expects more breakthroughs in that area going forward along with being able to recognize more gene mutations associated with the disease in order to pick it up earlier for treatment.

Interestingly, he believes without question that it is many times harder on the spouse than it is on the patient with cancer.

“I think it takes a mental toll,” Behrman said. “Treating pancreas cancer is a very long, drawn-out process. If patients make it through to surgery, generally the treatment would take almost a year’s time. In terms of a husband and wife, it’s huge and can make their relationship much stronger. It’s a long thing emotionally and physically to go through. You always look at life differently from that point, and you appreciate it much more.”

The Kosten Foundation was founded in 2003 to improve community support, awareness and funding for pancreatic cancer. The organization has raised more than $1.5 million for pancreatic cancer research.

The Craigs attend every monthly Kosten Foundation support group meeting to encourage patients, their families and anyone interested in learning more about pancreatic cancer to continue fighting. The group meets every second Saturday of the month at the Cordova Public Library.

“We get together and share our stories, share updates about what works and didn’t work for us,” Kathryn said. “When your system is reworked when you have surgery or when you’re on chemo when your system gets damaged, you have to learn how to eat and learn how to live – what you can do to conserve and create energy.”

At a recent support meeting, the word “angry” came up.

“You get angry because you can’t do what you used to be able to do, and you get angry at the disease because it’s taken something away from your life,” Tom said. “So you have to weigh that emotion.”

The Kosten Foundation also organizes annual events to raise money to fight pancreatic cancer, such as the Kick It 5K Walk/Run to be held this year on Sunday, April 8, at Shelby Farms Park.

Tom is the coordinator of that event.

“It’s our largest fundraiser and has become one of the bigger local races,” he said. “We hope to have at least 2,500 to 3,000 people there, including more than 1,500 runners.”

All proceeds from the event go to help fund pancreatic cancer research at the University of Tennessee and developments for treatment. While the five-year survival rate has increased in recent years from only 5 percent to 8 percent, it still lags far behind the 90 percent survival rate for breast cancer.

“We’re looking to create awareness,” Kathryn said. “Because there’s a lot of hope out there, and you can have a life while you’re battling cancer.”

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