Clinical trial helps pancreatic cancer patient rally

Grand Rapids

COOPERSVILLE, Mich. (WOOD) — Mysterious stomach aches turned out to be stage 4 pancreatic cancer for one Coopersville woman.

Last fall, doctors told Tricia Johnson that she had the worst form of pancreatic cancer, predicting she wouldn’t make it to see Christmas.

That wasn’t the case.

Shut turned to Spectrum Health, which is blazing a trail of new hope for pancreatic cancer patients. For years, a medical team has worked on a clinical trial for a treatment that is some 400 times stronger than basic chemotherapy.

It delivers strong treatment directly to the liver, having a much more effective impact, according to Dr. Paul Wright. He’s a surgical oncologist at Spectrum Health and the pioneer of the one-of-a-kind treatment.

“It’s the first trial of its kind in the country,” he told 24 Hour News 8.

Johnson qualified for the trial and became patient No. 1 in February.

‘YOU HAVE PANCREATIC CANCER’

For Johnson, it started as nagging discomfort in her stomach and changes in her bowel movements. She said it wasn’t painful, but it was consistent. After speaking with friends and coworkers, Johnson went to her doctor.

First, she was diagnosed her with irritable bowel syndrome, but the anticramping medications were no match for what doctors later told her was stage 4 cancer.

Just over a week later, she went to have a CT scan. The procedure on Aug. 30 almost didn’t happen. Johnson explained that there was trouble finding her vein before the procedure, but she found another location.

Today, she’s glad she got  the scan.

“I wasn’t home probably 15 minutes and then the doctor called,” Johnson said from her cozy home in Coopersville. “He (the doctor) said, ‘I have some bad news for you.’ And still in my head I’m thinking surgery (or) gallbladder? And he’s like, ‘You have pancreatic cancer.’ And I just… I don’t really remember what happened after that. I kind of went blank.”

Her husband Shane Johnson was on the east side of the state for work when his phone rang that day. It was his wife.

She told 24 Hour News 8 it was “the worst day possible to call” him.

“My dad had passed the year before and it was on that day,” Shane Johnson shared.

The husband and wife said they never put the phone down during Shane’s three-hour rush home. He said he remembers the desperation in his wife’s voice.

“Not the desperation because she has cancer. It was because- because I wasn’t there,” he recalled, emotional. “So, that was- that was the toughest moment.”

Things didn’t get much easier from there.

SIX MONTHS TO LIVE: ‘THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE’

“Pancreatic cancer is notoriously aggressive. It’s one of the most difficult cancers that we have to treat,” Dr. Wright said.

He explained that 80% of patients don’t show any symptoms until the cancer has reached the most aggressive stage. Worse, only 30% or 40% of pancreatic cancer patients respond to regular chemotherapy.

With a week, Johnson was discussing options with Wright and his oncology team at Spectrum Health’s Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.

When biopsy results came back, doctors gave her six to nine months to live.

“(I) decided right then and there, no, I’m not six to nine months. I have kids getting married. I have grandkids I want to see, I have things I want to do. This is not acceptable,” she said.

She left her job and doctors put a port in her chest to administer chemotherapy. By February, Wright told Johnson that she qualified for his new clinical trial, in part because she lives an active life and keeps a healthy diet free of processed foods and sugars.

“Inserting a tiny pump in her liver that blasts cancer much more effectively than the port in her chest,” he explained the method. “It’s never been used for pancreatic cancer.”

“To me, it was a no-brainer,” Johnson said. “I mean, I’m doing chemo, I’m putting poison in my body anyways. What’s the difference between possibly being able to give me longer life, better life, help other people in the future, help research. There was way more positive than negative.”

Today, the treatment is working. Her tumors are shrinking and doctors say results show a 90% improvement.

“She’s thriving right now at a time where most people are running out of options,” Wright said.

Wright said he has since enrolled two more patients in the trial. He hopes to have a total of 15.

Johnson said keeping a positive attitude and open dialogue with her husband also helps her keep motivated.

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