- Posted by jdavis on August 24, 2011
Mary Sharkey isn’t the type of person who is usually diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
After all, the mother of three grown children is fit and healthy and doesn’t have any of the common risk factors for pancreatic cancer. She:
- Doesn’t smoke
- Doesn’t have diabetes
- Doesn’t have a family history of pancreatic, melanoma, ovarian or colorectal cancer (diseases that have been linked to pancreatic cancer)
Most pancreatic cancer patients also are over the age of 50. Sharkey, who was 49 at the time, was stunned by her diagnosis in October 2001. “I just couldn’t believe it,” she says. “It still blows me away.”
Today, the cancer is gone, and Sharkey is in good health. She knows that with cancer there is always a chance for a recurrence, so she takes life one day at a time. Still, her recovery is an inspiration for other patients dealing with this disease, which is often diagnosed late because symptoms are not always obvious. Approximately 30,700 people are expected to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003. Of that number, only 700 are expected to survive.
Sharkey shares her story here to offer hope to other pancreatic cancer patients.
How it Began
Her journey began in the fall of 2001 when she felt a light pressure in her sternum and a slight discomfort in her upper back area. “I thought it was from lifting weights,” she recalls. “It was just kind of a nuisance. Nothing I’d take Advil for or anything. I checked it out with my general practitioner. He said it was probably my gallbladder or acid reflux, and he suggested an ultrasound. The ultrasound found pancreatitis, but there was a mass.”
She was referred to specialists and had numerous tests that led to a biopsy right after Thanksgiving.
“I had been planning to go to Australia to meet my daughter, Amy. We were going to spend a week traveling to New Zealand together, then the rest of the family was going to join us and we were all going to return home.”
A week-and-a-half before the trip, Sharkey received her diagnosis and learned that instead of going to Australia, she would be spending that time receiving chemotherapy treatments.
Sharkey’s doctor found that her tumor was located close to an artery, which meant it was unsafe to surgically remove the tumor. Along with a radiation oncologist, he hoped that the combination of chemotherapy and aggressive radiation treatments would pull the tumor away from the artery and allow for the surgical removal of the tumor.
“I was on chemotherapy every other week for a total of four doses,” Sharkey says. “I was truly blessed because I did not have one problem. I felt great; I never lost my appetite; never was nauseated and never lost my hair.”
Her faith and family, including her mother and husband, Pat, were a great inspiration.
“I had one daughter at the University of Virginia, a son in college, a daughter who was a junior in high school,” she says. “I was determined not to let the chemo run me. I didn’t want it to negatively affect my youngest daughter and ruin her high school life. If I had something to do with her at high school, I was there.”
Chemotherapy was followed by 28 radiation treatments over a 5 1/2 week period. She also had more chemotherapy on Saturdays. The treatments did their job, and a few weeks later, a CT scan showed that the tumor had shrunk and moved far enough from the artery to make surgery possible.
On May 13, 2002, a surgical oncologist performed what is known as Whipple surgery. Named after Alan O. Whipple, M.D., the pioneer of the procedure, Sharkey’s surgery involved removing a part of her portal vein (a blood vessel that carries blood to the liver from the spleen, pancreas and digestive tract). The remaining part of the vein was repaired with a patch taken from her leg vein. She left the hospital in a little over a week to recover at home. (The surgery also removed 40% of her pancreas, her entire gallbladder and part of her lower duodenum the first part of the small intestine.)
“I was just very, very blessed that I had no problem with the surgery,” Sharkey says. “There was pain and discomfort, but it wasn’t where I was whining and moaning in pain. And the more exercise I did, the better I felt.”
Pathology reports showed that all signs of cancer were gone and the prognosis for the future was good. But Sharkey wanted to take extra precautions. She asked her doctor if there were any post-surgical chemotherapy treatments she could undergo. She hoped it might help eliminate the possibility of the cancer returning.
Starting in mid-July, and continuing through mid-September, Sharkey underwent chemotherapy treatments. Daily, she also gave herself a shot of Interferon, a drug that stimulates the body’s immune system and interferes with how the cells grow and multiply.
“That was tough,” she says. “By then my body had been through a lot. It was strong stuff. I was weak and tired. It was the beginning of my daughter’s senior year in high school, and I was the head of her senior prom. Two weeks after I finished treatment, though, I was back to normal. Ever since then, I’ve been doing great.”
Her latest checkup last month showed no sign of cancer. Like all cancer survivors, the thought of recurrence lurks in the back of her mind. But she focuses on enjoying her life today, staying positive and helping others.
“If there is any one message I would have for people, it would be to listen to your body and keep your faith strong,” Sharkey says. “If you feel there is anything wrong, get it checked out. Be proactive about your health.”