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Patient Stories: Kathleen Dowell

The Will to Survive

Long-term survivor Kathleen Dowell with her pancreatic cancer care team.
Kathleen Dowell (center) with her care team. L-R: Beth Onners, Dan Laheru, Elizabeth Jaffee, Kathleen, Barbara Biedryzcki, and Irena Tartakovsky.

Kathleen Dowell has a rare distinction. She is a long-term survivor of pancreatic cancer.

In 1997, annoying itching all over then 49-year-old Kathleen’s body drove her to see her doctor. A suspected gallstone turned out to be something more sinister. When routine gallbladder removal surgery at a community hospital resulted in a burst small intestine, the surgeon called in to repair the intestine found pancreatic cancer.

Kathleen broke the devastating news to her husband and 25- and 21-year-old daughters. Her doctor then recommended that she go to Johns Hopkins for surgery.

“He told us that it was possible to have the operation at the community hospital,” Kathleen said, “but, that they weren’t as skilled as Hopkins surgeons because they didn’t do as many of these procedures. He said Hopkins surgeons had the most expertise in doing this surgery.”

The next day, Kathleen was taken by private ambulance to the Johns Hopkins where gastrointestinal (GI) surgeon John Cameron, M.D., removed her pancreas, part of her stomach, and several lymph nodes.

Most of the lymph nodes tested positive for cancer cells.

The pancreatic cancer had begun to spread; surgery would not be a viable option.

Kathleen began chemotherapy and radiation therapy. She knew little about this cancer but she began to have doubts, feeling the odds were not in her favor.

“At the time I was diagnosed, I didn’t understand the gravity,” said Kathleenl. “I had heard of breast, colon, and lung cancers—the big ones, but I really wasn’t familiar with pancreas cancer. I didn’t know anyone who had it, so I didn’t really understand how bad it was.”

GI cancer expert Ross Donehower, M.D., spoke to Kathleen about a pancreatic cancer vaccine clinical trial. She eagerly accepted.

After two doses of the vaccine, she developed a condition called TTP (Thrombotic Thrombocytopenic Purpura) which causes blood clots to form throughout the body. Though the vaccine did not cause the TTP, the TTP caused her to have seizures and a stroke. She was no longer eligible for the vaccine. Remarkably, even the small dose of vaccine she had received was enough to get her immune system working against the cancer.

More than 10 years later, Kathleen is leading a full life. She is working, has joined a women’s group at her church, and enjoys hobbies, including gardening and crafts.

“I won’t say I’m as good as new,” she said. “I have to take pancreas enzymes to digest food. But, I have a good life.” 

Kathleen now looks back on her diagnosis and recalls questioning the terrible survival rates of pancreatic cancer.  “Dr. Cameron told me it was true,but he also told me I could be the one to survive it,” she said. “He was right.”

 

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