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Johns Hopkins Health - Organ-Sparing Care

Winter 2011
Issue No. 11

Organ-Sparing Care

Date: January 20, 2011

woman in red sweater

Frightened by the prospect of major surgery, Kathleen O’Brien Thompson found an alternative solution for removing her pancreatic tumor

When I started having unexplained abdominal pain, my gynecologist thought I might have appendicitis. But the reality was much worse—at least that’s how it looked at first. I was living in Arizona at the time, and my doctors there gave me a CT scan, an MRI and two ultrasounds. The diagnosis? A 5- to 6-centimeter tumor on my pancreas. I was terrified. I was only 40, and I thought I might have pancreatic cancer. The only way to know for sure was to have surgery.

I visited two surgeons, both of whom wanted to do open-cavity surgery on me and remove my spleen, my gallbladder and part of my pancreas. I balked. I didn’t want to just go in willy-nilly and start having organs removed.

One of the surgeons referred me to Johns Hopkins’ Web site. That’s how I found Dr. Martin Makary. After careful research, I learned that unlike the procedure that had previously been recommended, the minimally invasive laparoscopic procedure at Johns Hopkins would, in my case, offer less risk and quicker recovery.

I knew Johns Hopkins was the leading facility in the country for treating pancreatic cancer, so I sent Dr. Makary my CT scan, and the very next day he called me. He told me he thought the tumor did not seem like cancer and that I qualified for the minimally invasive surgery.
Dr. Makary had a viewpoint of really wanting to help. He wanted to advance my comfort and care, and his plan would allow me to keep my spleen, gallbladder and almost my entire pancreas. Fortunately, my tumor turned out to be noninvasive.

After I had the surgery, I was up and walking right away, and in three weeks I was back to doing many of my normal activities. Going to Johns Hopkins was life-changing; my recovery time was cut in half, and I felt my surgical result was better and my doctor was a true partner in my care.

Comparing Pancreatic Surgeries

  • The standard operation for pancreatic cancer is called the Whipple, which involves removal of the head of the pancreas, the gallbladder, the end of the bile duct, and sometimes part of the stomach.
  • Minimally invasive procedures use smaller incisions, which typically mean less pain and scarring and a faster recovery. Johns Hopkins surgeons can assess the best treatment approach in each patient’s case.
  • Surgeons at Johns Hopkins regularly perform minimally invasive operations to remove tumors in the head of the pancreas.

In Her Own Words
To watch a video of Kathleen O’Brien Thompson telling her story, visit

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