My journey with UC Health began on a Thursday evening, December 9, 2010, with a visit to my family physician, Dr. Sri Murthy. I was having stomach pains that just wouldn’t go away. I thought maybe a bad case of Acid Reflux disease. Whatever Dr. Murthy discovered on my examination, she set me up for an ultrasound the following Monday. Tom and I went to have the the ultrasound done at West Chester Medical Office Building. Right after getting home, the phone rang. Dr. Murthy wanted me to come back for a CAT Scan. Never in my wildest imagination did I think my diagnosis would be Pancreatic Cancer, but on December 14, 2010 it happened, the worst day of my life. No one survives very long with this disease. I was only 52 and was going to die. I didn’t want to leave my husband and family so soon. What was going to happen? Dr. Murthy told me that she believed my cancer was not operable. However, she acted immediately and the next day I had an appointment with Dr. Syed Ahmad, one of the leading pancreatic surgeons in the country.
Wednesday morning, with my husband, step-daughter, mother and best friend in tow, we saw Dr. Ahmad at the Barrett Center on the Clifton campus of UC Health. I was not operable due to the involvement of my tumor with major arteries running to the lower half of my body. Dr. Ahmad believed the best course of action was to begin chemotherapy immediately under the guidance of Dr. Olugbenga Olowokure, possibly followed by a round of radiation depending on the outcome of the chemo treatments. Dr. Ahmad made arrangements for me to see Dr. Benga that same day. At this point, I had a feeling that Dr. Ahmad gets what he wants, when he wants it J
Dr. Benga, how do you describe him? A force of nature, a huge ray of hope, a spiritual guide, the best doctor anyone could have when fighting pancreatic cancer, all of the above and more. He is truly, with the exception of my husband, the most remarkable person I have ever met. From the minute he met with us, he gave us hope and path to follow. He told us he would do everything possible to make surgery an option, but that I had to believe and keep a positive attitude. I had to keep my “boxing gloves” on all the time. My chemo gang kept our “Dr. Benga gloves” on all though 2011 and still do to this day. Chemo started the following Weds and the real journey began.
I was on a chemo therapy regimen of 3 weeks on, 1 week off, for all of 2011. My appointments were every Monday at the West Chester facility. What a staff! The nurses, PA’s, Med Techs, were just wonderful. I was very fortunate to have the “chemo gang” with me every week. We took up a lot of space and the rooms were tiny, but Angela, Vera and Christy always made sure we could all fit in somehow. You begin to live your life in monthly and quarterly time frames. Monthly because that is interval of the tumor marker test, quarterly because that was the CAT scan schedule. You say to yourself, okay, tumor marker number is coming down, CAT scans are not showing any progression, OK, I am good for another 3 months. Of course, my hair fell out, not such a big loss after all. I was very fortunate not to have the gastrointestinal side effects that many chemo patients suffer. I always teased the nurses, that the one side effect I did not get was weight loss, I could have used a few pounds of that J After the 2nd round of chemo, Dr. Benga had me start a round of 31 radiation treatments, along with my chemotherapy. Radiation would be at the Precision Radiotherapy Center at the UC West Chester Medical campus. I literally could walk from chemo to radiation. What a blessing to have all your treatment at one central location.
Dr. Michelle Mierzwa, was the radiation oncologist that worked with the Pancreatic Cancer team. She was very honest about the odds of radiation therapy having any significant effect on pancreatic cancer cells. She did not believe my tumor would shrink significantly, but the Pancreatic Team was willing to try the combination treatment. Dr. Mierzwa guided me through the next 31 treatments with compassion and professionalism. The radiation technicians were always pleasant and very concerned about my well being. By the 5th week of radiation treatments , I was knocked down and out. I was so tired, that I didn’t think I could get out of bed, let alone go to treatments. With help of my “chemo gang” I made it through. I had to keep those “boxing gloves” on and fighting. I did not want to let my family and Dr. Benga down.
The year continued with white cell booster shots, red blood cell transfusions, monthly blood tests, quarterly CAT scans. I must compliment the nurses in the Outpatient Surgery Department at West Chester Hospital. They went above and beyond to make sure I was well taken care of during all my blood transfusions. They even made sure my guests were comfortable. I couldn’t ask for better nurses. It was nice to have WI FI available, as I was able to work from the hospital during my transfusions.
Dr. Benga was my constant. I met with him every month. We used to laugh, you could have an appointment with DR. Benga and he would always be late. We called it “Benga time”. Of course, no one cared since we knew he was spending time with other patients that needed him more at that time. He spent the time that was needed with each patient. On one occasion, I was not scheduled to see him, but the nurses recognized I was having a really bad time. He made time to see me and my family that day. We even prayed together. He often called on weekends and week nights just to check on me. He delivered a basket of goodies to my parent’s home on a Sunday afternoon in response to my mother’s Christmas gift to him. How many doctors do you know make house calls on Sundays, yet, here was Dr. Benga making a gift basket delivery.
By summer, my tumor count was moving downward towards the normal range. By September it reached the normal range and remained there for the months to follow. The CAT scans were still unchanged, but Dr. Benga began to believe that what was showing on the scans was dead tissue. He made the decision, along with Dr. Ahmad, to send me to surgery. No one was sure what they would find but it was time to look.
On Friday, January 13th 2012, I was admitted to UC- Clifton Hospital for surgery. I went into surgery not knowing what the final outcome would be. I was blessed. According to Dr. Ahmad, he did over a 100 biopsies of the organs and tissues surrounding the pancreas. So many, the lab was getting quite annoyed with him. All of them came back negative for cancer cells. He removed my spleen and part of my pancreas. I did not require the entire Whipple procedure, so I am not a diabetic. I would have traded diabetes for cancer any day of the week. I spent the next 2 weeks recovering on the 9th floor of the UC-Clifton hospital. I had amazing care from all the nurses, nursing aides, housekeeping, therapy personnel, just everyone. The view from the room was not bad either. Friday the 13th turned out to be a very lucky day.
I was blessed to have been treated at UC. Dr. Murthy sensed my problem might have been more than just acid reflux. The problem with pancreatic cancer is that it is a hidden cancer. Most people do not have outward symptoms until the late stages of the disease. I was fortunate that Dr. Murthy detected something and sent me to get tested immediately. I am sure many doctors would have just sent me home with some Prilosec and told me to come back if my symptoms did not get better. Precious time would have been wasted. The blessing continued with Dr. Ahmad, Dr. Olowokure, Dr. Mierzwa . These are doctor’s are leading the way in new treatments for pancreatic cancer. They are the best and the brightest in their field. UC is a leading research facility in pancreatic cancer and so many other diseases. The people at UC Medical saved my life. This is the place you need to be for the cutting edge treatments and the talented physicians they can get because the research facilities are wonderful.
I am currently cancer free. Some of the best words in the English language. There are no guarantees that my cancer will not return, but I am treating every precious day as a blessing. I owe so much to Dr. Benga and the whole team. I know I would not have heard those two precious words without them and the love and support of my husband, parents, daughters, very special friends and the prayers of so many people.