GILBERT, Arizona – This time last year, Sharon Rockmaker’s family and friends provided plenty of encouragement during her pancreas cancer treatment. Yet three particular words the Ahwatukee woman most needed to hear seemed so far away: You’re in remission.
Now the former elementary school music teacher isn’t only one of 60,000 Americans each year who learn they have pancreatic cancer, which has the highest mortality rate of all major types of the disease. She’s also one of the roughly 10% of patients to survive a pancreatic cancer diagnosis.
Her success has been due to a complex surgery called the Whipple procedure, which was performed by a Banner MD Anderson surgeon, at Banner Gateway Medical Center in Gilbert. During this procedure, a surgeon removes the head of the pancreas, the duodenum (a part of the small intestine), a portion of the bile duct, the gallbladder and associated lymph nodes.
“It’s definitely a life-saving and life-improving procedure,” said Rockmaker, who is 53. “I’m as healthy as I’ve been in years, and I’m healthier in many ways than I was before the diagnosis, because I didn’t know I was walking around with cancer.”
Typically, the surgery takes four hours to complete. Most patients stay in the hospital about five to fix days following the Whipple procedure, also known as a pancreaticoduodenectomy. For most people, it takes about one to three months to fully return to a normal quality of life, said Dr. Michael Choti, surgical oncologist at Banner MD Anderson. This depends on factors such as age, underlying health issues and other types of treatment – such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy – which might be needed before or after the operation. Ultimately, patients should be able to eat normally and do anything after surgery they could do before.
Unfortunately, not every patient diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is a candidate for this potentially curative surgery. Evaluation by a multidisciplinary team is important, along with careful imaging, and pathologic and molecular testing. Early diagnosis is important when possible. Symptoms include jaundiced skin and eyes, dark urine, and weight loss. An otherwise unexplainable onset of diabetes can also be an early warning sign.
Since her surgery, Rockmaker has taken a vacation to Maui and celebrated her 25th wedding anniversary with her husband, Jody. She can ride a bicycle, swim and she takes walks every day. She looks forward to spending the holiday season with family.
Rockmaker’s treatment also required chemotherapy and radiation therapy. She’ll never forget finally hearing those hopeful words. “Dr. Choti said, ‘You’re in remission. You’re free to live your life now, to go back to doing the things you want to do,’” said Rockmaker.
The Whipple procedure is performed by top surgeons at Banner MD Anderson at locations across Greater Phoenix.
Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center delivers cancer care to patients through the partnership of Banner Health and MD Anderson Cancer Center. Banner MD Anderson offers focused disease-specific expertise in the medical, radiation and surgical management of the cancer patient; an evidence-based, multidisciplinary approach to patient care; access to clinical trials and new investigative therapies; state-of-the-art technology for the diagnosis, staging and treatment of all types of cancer; oncology expertise in supportive care services. For more information, visit www.BannerMDAnderson.com.