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Patient Stories: Fred Durham

The Power of Self-Advocacy

At first, Fred Durham thought his digestive troubles were the result of eating too many rich foods. While vacationing in the south of France in October 2006, the Colorado-based bookstore manager became abnormally nauseous and constipated.

Soon after returning home, Fred, now 58, developed vision problems. Medical tests revealed that his blood sugar and liver function were spiraling out of control, and he started daily insulin injections for what doctors thought was diabetes. Next came nearly unbearable bouts of itching.


Patient Perspectives Series- Fred Durham - pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer patient Fred Durham discusses his treatment at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.

By early 2007, Fred underwent additional tests, including a liver biopsy and CT scan, that showed normal results.

Finally, an endoscopy revealed a bile duct obstruction. The cause was a cancerous tumor growing in the head of his pancreas.

Fred immediately set to work researching his options.

“It was so evident that this disease was just eating me alive,” he said. “I’m amazed at the number of people who get a cancer diagnosis and just give up or just accept it. You absolutely have to become an advocate.”

A cancer survival guidebook and some friends’ testimonials convinced him that Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center was the place to go for surgery and treatment.

“What became immediately apparent from my research was that, in order to have any chance of living more than six months, I needed to find the most experienced surgeon available,” Fred said.

With a referral from a local gastrointestinal surgeon, Johns Hopkins surgeon John Cameron, M.D., agreed to perform a Whipple operation on Fred.

The day Fred was scheduled to fly to Baltimore in April 2007, he was hospitalized with fever, pain and complications from a stent that had been implanted to keep his bile duct open. Dr. Cameron convinced the Colorado physicians that releasing Fred for travel was essential to his survival, and with his employer’s generous offer to lend a corporate airplane, Fred and his son arrived in Baltimore two days before surgery.

Following thesuccessful Whipple operation at Johns Hopkins, Fred returned to Colorado for chemotherapy and radiation, and to resume his life. Fred was now starting the third part of his pancreatic cancer battle, as he searched for a way to eliminate any remaining pancreatic cancer cells that might be lurking in his body.

He had read about a promising pancreatic cancer vaccine, developed by Drs. Daniel Laheru and Elizabeth Jaffee, which creates an immune response that targets pancreatic cancer.

In September 2007, Fred returned to Baltimore. After a CT scan revealed he was free of cancer, he received his first series of vaccines. Six months later, during a follow-up visit, Fred said he decided to stop living his life in six-month increments and plan further out. To date, he has received three sets of booster shots.

Fred, who identified himself as a person always seeking to be in control of life, now lives in the moment, appreciates what he has, and no longer lets little things bother him. He maintains an active lifestyle, plans to climb a 14,000-foot peak this summer, and crew a sailboat for a friend.

“I probably have never looked better than I do now,” Fred said. “People are amazed when they hear I’ve had pancreatic cancer.”

Fred Durham contributes to a blog Putting a Face on Cancer. Read the blog.