Jeanne: Pancreatic Cancer Survivor
Jeanne Czel went from enjoying retirement and playing golf in a benefit tournament in North Carolina, to a month later undergoing what would be one of the most difficult years of her life. It started with an uncomfortable feeling in her chest that she attributed to heart burn or acid reflux, although she had never experienced either before. She was still not feeling right, but had no alarming symptoms such as pain, or weight loss. Normally a very high energy, active person, when she started noticing loss of energy, she made an appointment to meet with her gastroenterologist. On July 21, 2011, after undergoing blood work, an MRI and a CAT scan, Jeanne, historically a very healthy person, received a diagnosis of stage IV pancreatic cancer; it has metastasized to her liver and duodenum.
From there she began to research her options and on August 1 she met with Howard Hochster, MD, Professor of Medicine (Medical Oncology), and his team at Smilow Cancer Hospital. On August 5 she received her first of 23 intense rounds of chemotherapy. FOLFIRINOX is an innovative chemotherapy regimen that is in a phase II clinical trial for patients with advanced pancreatic cancer. FOLFIRINOX is the combination of 5-fluorouracil, leucovorin, irinotecan, and oxaliplatin. Although Jeanne was not able to be part of the trial, due to the fact that she needed to start treatment immediately, she is being treated according to the trial guidelines.
“FOLFIRINOX is a very impressive treatment that can produce a dramatic response, but is very hard for some patients to handle,” said Dr. Hochster. “Because pancreatic cancer spreads so rapidly it’s a difficult disease to treat. Even if you are able to perform surgery, the cancer will most likely recur shortly after.” Dr. Hochster commented that Jeanne’s response to the treatment was remarkable.
Jeanne was able to follow the regimen for a year. Before undergoing the treatment she didn’t want to know how bad the side effects would be. She knew it would be tough, but figured that knowing wouldn’t help. “I didn’t want it to dictate how I lived my life. I decided then and there to focus my energy on myself. I told my friends and family that they needed to figure out how they were going to handle it, but that I was going to deal with it in the way that was best for me,” said Jeanne.
Although she experienced side effects from the treatment, lack of energy being the main one, she continued to live her life and even traveled to Europe for two weeks. In June of 2012 it was determined that she could take a break from the chemotherapy, and was even deemed in remission. During this time she spent 10 days skiing, went golfing, and rode in the Closer to Free bike ride, an annual fundraising event for Smilow Cancer Hospital. Unfortunately, after 4 months her cancer progressed and she started chemotherapy again, this time without oxaliplatin, an agent that is known to cause neuropathy, which Jeanne experienced.
Dr. Hochster commented, “Not many pancreatic cancer patients have the opportunity to take a break of any length from treatment, but Jeanne’s scans were normal and it looked as though she was in remission. For now we are keeping her cancer under control, but the future is uncertain. She is such a great example in that she is still living her life to the fullest and remains positive.”
Jeanne plans to ride in the Closer to Free bike ride again this year on September 7th with her daughter, and just completed her first 5k Run since being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “The whole time I thought the body I had taken care of for so many years had betrayed me, but the same body that I thought had betrayed me, allowed me to undergo this grueling regimen,” said Jeanne. She continues to golf, run, and ski, which she commented not a lot of people with stage IV disease of any kind can say. She considers herself to be a healthy person that happens to have a terminal disease.
She commented, “Research is so important in defeating this disease and it just might bring that 6% 5-year survival rate up to 10%, and then up from there.” Her daughter and she are both part of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) and take part in fundraising. They both feel that Pancreatic Cancer Advocacy Day, held by PanCAN, is a special day because it focuses on raising awareness and speaking to legislators about funding more research in pancreatic cancer. Even though Jeanne tries not to look too far ahead, and instead focuses on the day to day, she remains a glass half full kind of person, and will watch her daughter walk down the aisle next month.
“I don’t think about events that I might miss in the future, but focus on the fact that I am still here and living well with pancreatic cancer. There is nothing I want to do that I can’t do. I hope that other patients see that it is possible to keep living life and that they seek out any options that provide them the opportunity to do better,” said Jeanne. “I don’t know why I got this disease, why I am still here, or how much longer I will be here, no one can answer those questions for me. I just know that if it wasn’t for both my support systems, the one at Smilow and my close friends and family, I couldn’t have done it. It all matters, all the prayers and well wishes, it all counts.”