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When Virginia Wetcher noticed a pain in her midsection, she didn’t think much of it. Having passed a kidney stone a month earlier, she assumed that it may be a repeat offender causing the discomfort. But soon the pain became unbearable, her urine turned black and her skin jaundiced.

A trip to the hospital revealed it was not another kidney stone. It was pancreatic cancer.

Virginia Wetcher, pancreatic cancer survivor

“I was very angry,” Wetcher said. “Having been an oncology nurse for 45 years, I was looking at the six-month survival rate. I remembered many of my patients dying within that timeframe.”

The numbers aren’t good when looking at pancreatic cancer.

According to Dr. Pamela Hodul, a gastrointestinal surgeon at Moffitt Cancer Center, out of every 100 patients, about 20 are eligible for surgery. Out of that 20, about seven achieve a cure.

So what advice does Hodul give to someone recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer?

For starters, don’t Google it.

“Don’t focus on numbers,” Hodul said. “I always tell people your prognosis is dependent on the biology of the tumor. It’s an unpredictable factor.”

“I always tell people your prognosis is dependent on the biology of the tumor. It’s an unpredictable factor.”
Dr. Pamela Hodul, gastrointestinal surgeon

Positive, Pleasant and Perky

According to Hodul, every patient that is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer goes through the five stages of grief, and each goes through it at their own speed. She is the embodiment of her “three p’s” that she uses to help her patients get through the hard days: positive, pleasant and perky.

It was the positive nature of Hodul and her team that helped Wetcher get through the early stages of grief and move forward to acceptance.

“Thank God for them,” Wetcher said. “Every phone call I ever had to make, little pains here, what was going on there, they were always within arm’s reach. They helped me take it one day at a time. After I got through that angry stage, I decided I was going to do everything I could to fight this.”

Wetcher found herself in the 20% of patients that were eligible for surgery. It was no sure thing, but at that point in her treatment a Whipple procedure was the only option left.

What is a Whipple procedure?

A Whipple procedure is the removal of the head of the pancreas, segment of proximal small bowel, gallbladder, distal bile duct and sometimes the distal 1/3 of the stomach.

The stomach, remaining pancreas and proximal bile duct are then sewn to a new piece of intestine. The upper gastrointestinal tract gets re-routed. Sometimes after surgery this is difficult to adapt to for the first few weeks.

Whipple procedures can be performed robotically or open surgery depending on the involvement of vessels.

“There’s a lot leading up to the surgery. Testing, biopsy, chemo and radiation,” Hodul said. “Then after surgery many patients still need additional chemotherapy.”

Typically patients spend about a week in the hospital recovering from a Whipple procedure. Wetcher’s recovery was slow. She ended up staying at Moffitt for nearly two weeks. It was Dec. 25, 2018, that Hodul told her the news.

“She came to me on Christmas morning and said, ‘We got it. We got the cancer,’ ” Wetcher said. “It was my Christmas present.”

Life after Pancreatic Cancer

“It can get low,” Hodul said. “But then there’s a high point when you find out you’re going to be OK, you’re going to be a survivor.”

After finishing another round of chemotherapy and rehabilitation, Wetcher has been cancer free for 18 months.

How did she celebrate? By getting married to husband Darryl at the age of 78.

“Keep the faith,” Wetcher said. “There is life after cancer. Be grateful for everything you have.”