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Beating Pancreatic Cancer With a Fresh Approach to Treatment

When doctors discovered a stage 3 tumor on John Magee's pancreas that they deemed inoperable, John took his health into his own hands by seeking a second opinion at Mayo Clinic. That decision made all the difference. Today, John is cancer-free.

When doctors discovered a stage 3 tumor on John Magee’s pancreas that they deemed inoperable, John took his health into his own hands by seeking a second opinion at Mayo Clinic. That decision made all the difference. Today, John is cancer-free.


Looking
back, the signs were there. “I can see I was sick,” John Magee says. “Even
though I might not have felt it, looking back at old pictures, I looked it.”

By
the time of his annual physical exam in January 2016, however, John had begun
to feel it. “At the end of my physicals, my doctor always asks me the same
two questions, ‘John, do you feel sick in your body, or do you feel sick
emotionally?'” he says. “For the first time in my life, I answered
yes to both.”

Those
responses were a result of weeks of unexplained pain in John’s lower back that
had left him physically and emotionally worn down. After John admitted he was
in pain, his primary care physician set about determining its cause. “We
started doing tests to try to figure out what was going on,” John says. “Initially,
we thought I’d herniated a disk in my back again because I’d done that before.”

Test results showed the problem wasn’t in his back, and the true source of the pain remained a mystery. After weeks of being unable to pinpoint a cause or a solution, John began doing his own research. “One night, I read that the pain pattern I was experiencing is common with pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer,” he says. “So I talked to my doctor about it.”

Initially,
John’s doctor was skeptical. “We’ve been friends for 30 years, so that
possibility was hard for him to accept at first,” John says. When John’s
pain became so severe, however, that it forced him to go to his local emergency
department, it was that longtime friend and primary care physician who urged his
other care providers to focus on John’s pancreas. “By him insisting they
do that, they found the tumor,” John says.

A proactive attitude

This wasn’t the first time John had been given sobering news about his pancreas. Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes 20 years ago, his pancreas hadn’t worked properly for several decades. When he received the diabetes diagnosis, John took action by researching and implementing dietary and exercise changes in an effort to decrease the disease’s impact on himself, his family and all those he served as minister of Light the Way Church in Cottage Grove, Minnesota.

As he listened to a radiologist confirm a diagnosis of adenocarcinoma, the most common form of pancreatic cancer, John once again decided he was going to become his own best advocate for what lie ahead. “I started chemotherapy immediately after my diagnosis,” he says. “I didn’t have a lot of confidence in the surgeon I was working with. My cancer was stage 3. The tumor had basically wrapped itself around an artery, so he said surgery was too risky. His medical assistant actually told my wife I’d be dead in 18 months based on what they saw.”

“My mindset upon coming to Mayo Clinic was, ‘I’m here because I want to live.’ As soon as I met Dr. Truty, I realized he shared that mindset.”

John Magee

John refused to accept that prognosis. “My wife had a friend who’d been treated by Dr. Mark Truty at Mayo Clinic, so she sent an email to (Dr. Truty),” John says. “I kid you not, 20 minutes later, Dr. Truty emailed us back and asked if we had any flexibility to come to Rochester later that week. He said he’d like to meet me and talk to me about my treatment. That’s how it all began.”

For
John, that brief email exchange with Dr. Truty was a seed of renewed hope. “Every
cancer story is immediately a horror story. As soon as people started finding
out my diagnosis, I felt like a ghost. I could see it in their eyes,” he
says. “But I have a wife, a family — children and grandchildren — and a
congregation I love, so I said: ‘Look, I’m in this to live. If there’s any way
at all to extend my life, to improve my quality of life, I’m in.’ My mindset
upon coming to Mayo Clinic was, ‘I’m here because I want to live.’ As soon as I
met Dr. Truty, I realized he shared that mindset.”

John says one of the most remarkable and memorable points in his treatment at Mayo Clinic came when Dr. Truty shared that mindset with John’s oldest son, who’d accompanied him to Mayo Clinic in Rochester. “One of the first things Dr. Truty did was to take my son aside and share his own family’s story of pancreatic cancer,” John says. “In that observation room, with tears in both of their eyes, Dr. Truty told my son, ‘This is why I do this, and I will do everything I can to help your father win this fight.’ That was the beginning of a very meaningful doctor-patient relationship.”

A willingness to tackle the challenge

Already into his first round of chemotherapy upon arriving at Mayo, John says the first question Dr. Truty asked him was if he was ready for more. “I said, ‘Yes I am,'” John says. “My care team described (chemotherapy) as weed killer and said there’d be no surgery until I went through more chemo and radiation to try and shrink the tumor as much as possible.”

After eight rounds of chemotherapy, 25 rounds of radiation and another 25 rounds of oral chemo, Dr. Truty reassessed John’s condition. “He made it clear my ability to have surgery was predicated on what they saw on my presurgery PET scan — whether my treatments had done what they were designed to do,” John says. “After my scan, he looked at the results and said, ‘Are you ready to go into surgery?'”

John
was, and early the next morning, he did. While Dr. Truty understands why other
surgeons had advised against surgery due to the location of John’s tumor, he
says it was something he and his surgical team were prepared for.

“We just have a different perspective on things here at Mayo Clinic, and we’re willing to take on the more challenging cases that don’t necessarily fit into nice, normal boxes.”

Mark Truty, M.D.

“His
tumor was close to some arteries that are pretty critical,” Dr. Truty
says. “There are some criteria out there where people say, ‘If they involve
blood vessels, then we can’t remove the tumors because we’d be leaving cancer
behind.’ We approach things a lot differently than other medical centers by
saying: ‘Why? If we need to, why can’t we take out that blood vessel and
reconstruct it?'”

That’s
exactly what Dr. Truty and his team did for John. “All it meant was that
the operation was of greater magnitude and carried some increased risks,”
Dr. Truty says. “Because of that, we have to make sure patients like John
are being treated adequately before surgery to justify those risks. We just
have a different perspective on things here at Mayo Clinic, and we’re willing
to take on the more challenging cases that don’t necessarily fit into nice,
normal boxes.”

Dr.
Truty and his team also are willing to push the boundaries of treatment beyond
the typical standard of care for a situation like John’s. “If we approach
everything as ‘This is the standard of care,’ well, then guess what you’re
going to get? You’re going to get a standard outcome,” Dr. Truty says. “The
problem with pancreatic cancer is that the standard outcome is pretty poor. We’re
trying to do something that’s beyond the standard of care for these patients at
Mayo Clinic.”

A life renewed

For
John, going beyond the standard of care was the difference between a grim
diagnosis and a bright future. “After I woke up from the procedure, Dr.
Truty came in and said I was cured,” John says. “Not in remission —
cured. He said they were able to get all of the cancer out of me, which was
mind-boggling.”

Also
defying expectations was how quickly John returned to his normal, active
lifestyle. “I’m a minster, so I speak for a living,” he says. “It’s
not like I’m lifting heavy equipment or doing physical labor, so I spent 10
days at Mayo after my surgery and then got back to work.”

Six
weeks later, John also was able to get back to swimming and lifting weights. Today,
three years after Dr. Truty removed his tumor, John says he’s officially back
to full strength and full health.

“That’s
a little weird because I’d been dealing with the mortality of this every day
while going through treatment,” he says. “There’s a weird
reconciliation that happens within yourself when you’re diagnosed with cancer.
You’re always looking at life and death. Cancer is always a part of you now,
whether you’re cured or not. But at the same time, I also have this wonderful
new community of people around me now.”

“Regardless of what you’ve been told, make that trip (to Mayo Clinic), and at least allow someone there to give you their take on what’s happening with your health. You owe that to yourself.”

John Magee

It’s
a community that John is trying to grow even more through the pancreatic cancer
awareness work he’s done since his diagnosis. “I’ve done some work with
the Pancreatic Cancer Action
Network
, and I’ve advocated in Washington, D.C. for more
funding for pancreatic cancer research,” he says. “My wife and I have
also hosted the remembrance service that the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network
does.”

Asked
what he’d like people to most take away from his personal story of pancreatic
cancer, John says that it’s to always get a second opinion. “No matter
what you’re told medically, get a second opinion at Mayo Clinic,” he says.
“Regardless of what you’ve been told, make that trip, and at least allow
someone there to give you their take on what’s happening with your health. You
owe that to yourself.”


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