LOWELL, Mich. (WOOD) — The survival rate for people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is incredibly low, but medical advancements in recent years have improved it.
Karyn Wolschleger’s battle against pancreatic cancer was long and hard, but she survived thanks to her medical team and the strong support she received from family and friends.
“When you don’t feel good, you need to get it checked out right away. I was lucky. I was very, very lucky in that they caught it early,” Wolschleger, of Lowell, said.
She said her symptoms started with back pain, insomnia and digestive problems.
“It just wasn’t getting better and wasn’t getting better and there I just had this feeling that something wasn’t quite right,” she said.
A weekend trip to the hospital and a CT scan revealed the cause of the pain: a golf ball-sized tumor on her pancreas. It was stage 2 pancreatic cancer.
“What do you do next? Where do you go? How do you navigate through all this? Who do you contact?” Wolschleger remembered worrying. “Quite emotional, quite overwhelming. It was the start of a journey.”
That journey included chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.
Dr. Mura Assifi, a surgical oncologist at Corewell Health (formerly Spectrum Health), said there have been big advancements in chemotherapy in recent years.
“Because of that chemotherapy and the effectiveness of that chemotherapy, we’re able to be a lot more aggressive in which patients we’re able to take to surgery,” Assifi said.
“I was only 55 when I was diagnosed and that’s not that old and I know people are younger when they’re diagnosed, but at 55, that’s when everything kind of begins,” Wolschleger said.
She had a million reasons, including four adult children, to give the fight all she had. She credits her survival to her medical team at Corewell Health, her family and the countless friends who surrounded her with support and love.
“You don’t have to be afraid to think positive. There is hope and there’s life afterwards. I have grandchildren now that I never thought I would see,” Wolschleger said.
The pancreas is a gland in the abdomen that aids in digestion and regulating blood sugar. Pancreatic cancer is hard to catch early.
“Because this cancer can sometimes have very vague symptoms and there’s no great screening tool that we have yet for this cancer, often times this cancer presents late or metastatic, which means it’s already spread beyond the confines of the pancreas,” Assifi said.
Wolschleger’s cancer was confined to her pancreas. Her doctors told her before she went under that if the surgery takes a long time, it was good news.
“When I woke up, the first thing I did was look at the clock and it was 6 p.m., and so I knew that they were able to take the cancer out and hopefully, that was the end of it,” Wolschleger said.
The cancer was gone. But so was Wolschleger’s pancreas, spleen, the first section of her small intestine, gallbladder, part of her bile duct and about a third of her stomach.
Without a pancreas, Wolschleger now has Type 1 diabetes, something she was prepared for.
“I’ve recovered,” she said. “I live a full life and I go on adventures with everyone, my family, my grandkids and we’re going on a trip to celebrate. It’s been 10 years in February and we’re going on a family trip to celebrate all because there is hope.”