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Pancreatic cancer survivor spreads message of hope

Marsha Edwards’ more than 40 years of experience as a radiologic technologist was beneficial when she suddenly had concerns about her own health.
(Marsha Edwards)

Sponsored By: OSUCCC – James

Marsha Edwards’ more than 40 years of experience as a radiologic technologist was beneficial when she suddenly had concerns about her own health. In November 2018, Marsha’s urine became extremely dark overnight. She became jaundiced within a few days. She knew immediately that her bile duct likely was blocked. Marsha didn’t hesitate—she acted to find answers.

The next day, Marsha’s physician ordered several tests, including CT and MRI imaging tests, which confirmed a mass at the head of her pancreas as the source of her blocked bile duct. This long, tube-like structure carries bile to other parts of the digestive tract and is required for the digestion of food. She was told she likely had pancreatic cancer.

Marsha asked to be referred to The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James), where she consulted with Aslam Ejaz, MD, MPH, a surgical oncologist who specializes in cancers of the pancreas, liver and gastrointestinal tract.

Marsha’s testing suggested she had “biologically favorable” disease, meaning it was caught when the tumor was still relatively small and had not appeared to spread to surrounding organs. With guidance from Ejaz, she opted to have the mass removed and to start chemotherapy following surgery to eradicate any residual cancer cells.

Only about 10-20 percent of pancreatic cancers are eligible for surgical removal. More than 50 percent of pancreatic cancer cases are diagnosed at stage 4, which means the disease has spread to organs such as the liver and lungs, or to other nearby or distant tissues. In these cases, surgery is no longer a treatment option, and patients often complete chemotherapy to prevent further spread of disease. Approximately 30 percent of pancreatic cancers involve important surrounding blood vessels that prevent surgical removal; however, newer and improved chemotherapy and radiation techniques allow a certain percentage of these patients to undergo surgery.

Pancreatic cancer can quickly leave patients very weak, as the majority of them experience a phenomenon called cancer cachexia (severe muscle loss). This can be confounded by chemotherapy treatment because patients often experience loss of appetite as a side effect of treatment and become malnourished.

“We are finding that, for patients like Marsha who catch their disease in the earliest stages, one option is to perform surgery before chemotherapy,” Ejaz says. “The Whipple procedure is a big, invasive surgery that takes time and strength to recover from. In Marsha’s case, she had a biologically favorable small tumor, so performing surgery first was an option.”

Marsha had a quiet Thanksgiving at home with her husband and then underwent surgery on Nov. 30. Her diagnosis was confirmed as stage 3 pancreatic cancer. She was able to return home five days before Christmas and enjoy time with her adult children and young grandchildren.

“When I first heard the words ‘pancreatic cancer,’ I felt sheer panic because I know most people aren’t diagnosed until very late stages of the disease, when fewer treatment options exist. I consider myself so lucky that I had resources and knowledge to get answers and treatment so quickly,” says Marsha. “The staff at The James became like family. I’m glad I don’t have to go there for chemo anymore, but I genuinely miss the girls who cared for me in chemotherapy.”

Marsha finished a six-month course of chemotherapy in July 2019 under the care of medical oncologist Anne Noonan, MBBCh, at the OSUCCC – James and is currently without any evidence of cancer. Now she is focused on building her strength and spending time with her family, which includes five adult children and three grandchildren. She says having a sense of humor and a positive attitude was essential to getting through the experience.

“I never wanted people to sugarcoat things for me, and I felt there was always hope. I don’t want anyone else to give up hope,” adds Marsha.

To learn more about the gastrointestinal cancer treatment team and clinical trials at the OSUCCC – James, visit cancer.osu.edu/GI or call 800-293-5066.