Health Team

New surgery helps pancreatic cancer patients

Posted November 19, 2015 7:13 p.m. EST

— A diagnosis of pancreatic cancer has one of the poorest outlooks for survival. According to experts, only six percent of people live beyond five years after their diagnosis, but a new laparoscopic surgery is helping select patients have a quick recovery and a better quality of life.

Kathleen O'Day, 68, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer three years ago after experiencing abdominal pain and digestive issues.

She said her doctors suspected gall bladder blockage, but when she learned it was pancreatic cancer, the difficult news was hard to share with family and friends.

"If people were really insensitive they would be like, 'Oh well, so and so had that. They are dead.' It was a tough diagnosis, and everything I read was horrible," O'Day said.

Duke cancer surgeon Dr. Alex Perez said O'Day was a good candidate for the surgery because her tumor appeared to be in its early stages and that it was in the more assessable "head" of the pancreas. Most centers conduct the surgery with a standard Whipple surgical approach.

"Traditionally, we would make a large incision about 12 inches long," Perez said.

The cancerous portion is removed and other parts of the digestive system are reconnected. After the surgery, a long hospital stay is required and the recovery can be difficult.

"With the advent of minimally invasive surgery, we have been able to do the same exact surgery, but through a fraction of an inch of that incision," Perez said.

Duke is one of the very few centers in the country with the experience to perform the less invasive Laparoscopic Whipple surgery, Perez said. A large team of specialists are involved.

"I remember him saying, 'OK, this is the Mt. Everest of surgeries, but I have been to the top of Mt. Everest and I can take you there,'" O'Day said.

O'Day's surgery was a success and she was only in the hospital for a week. The surgery was followed by a few months of chemotherapy and radiation.

"Once that part was over, my quality of life was fantastic," she said.

O'Day said she wants others who have been diagnosed with the disease to not be afraid.

"This is not the end of the world, that people do survive," she said.