In March, Seattle physician Mark Fishman became one of the 53,000 Americans expected to be diagnosed this year with pancreatic cancer, a disease with a low 8 percent five-year survival rate.1 But he and his wife Kathy see no reason why he can’t join the 8-percent club and are hopeful that it will happen.
To recognize Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, the Fishmans discuss how they keep each other strong and confident as Mark goes through treatment.2
How did you react when you heard your diagnosis?
Mark: I knew it was a possibility, so it wasn’t shocking. Seeing how hard my family and friends took it was the worst part. We had just found out a week earlier that my son and his wife were pregnant with our first grandson, so I was worried I wouldn’t get to hold him.
Kathy: It was a horrible, horrible, horrible day. I felt like my world was imploding. It knocked the air out of my soul. Those were the nastiest two words that I ever heard; I still have trouble saying them. Because of Mark’s family history, we often talked about Alzheimer’s entering our world, but never this. I thought they made a mistake.
What aspects of pancreatic cancer do you think are uniquely challenging for patients?
Mark: It’s not a great diagnosis, but I just chose to move forward. Someone has to make up the 8 percent of patients who survive, right? Why couldn’t it be us? They say those numbers are going to double, and that’s what we’re hoping for.
Did you and your doctors consider enrolling in a clinical trial?
Mark: We talked about clinical trials, but either I didn’t qualify, or they started months down the road. With pancreatic cancer, you don’t have months to wait. So my doctor recommended mixing treatment protocols that called for a combination of existing chemotherapies, alternated back and forth for 48 weeks.
Did you question your doctor’s recommendations at all?
Kathy: I asked our doctor if he would choose this treatment if his own brother had cancer. He said yes, because he had seen spectacular results. I have pieces of paper all around our house with those words “spectacular results” on them as a reminder.
“This experience has brought into focus what true family and friendship means. It’s reinforced for me the basic goodness of people.”
What are the effects of your current treatment?
Mark: So far, I feel pretty good and have experienced few side effects. Prior to being diagnosed, I was fairly active. My trainer wanted me to enter a weightlifting contest; he thought I would do well for my age group. That’s out of the question now, but I still work out three days a week.
How has your experience with pancreatic cancer changed your outlook?
Mark: This experience has brought into focus what true family and friendship means. It’s reinforced for me the basic goodness of people. We have family in Seattle, and they bring food, call everyday and visit the hospital. Even the chemotherapy nurses—complete strangers—have done nice things for us.
Kathy: I’m in awe of my husband and crazy proud of his positivity. When Mark was first diagnosed, I focused on the next test results to see if his cancer was getting worse. Now, I try to mirror him by focusing on today. It’s helped me get to a better place, emotionally. It’s a beautiful day in Seattle, and we’re going to take a walk down the street toward the beach, holding hands, and appreciating the beauty of Mount Rainier.
What are some of the other things that you’re thankful for?
Kathy: We’ve done amazing things like visiting the Seattle Seahawks training camp and meeting quarterback Russell Wilson. He wrote on my jersey about the power of positive thinking. So I’m thankful we have good friends who made this lifelong dream come true for Mark.
Mark: I’ve been so thrilled to see my grandson, play with him and hold him. We hope to see him grow older and enjoy even more time with him.
What advice would you give to someone who has recently been diagnosed?
Kathy: If I weren’t in Seattle with my family and friends, I would be lost. We have so many cheerleaders here. You need a support group within your community. We are in it together. It would be so difficult for someone who was alone.
Mark: There’s no denying the stats are scary, but they are also five years old, and a lot of things have changed since then. A lot of new treatments and different approaches are on the horizon. Find an oncologist that doesn’t just stick with the original plan but is willing to adjust and try new things if it’s not working for you.
1 National Cancer Institute. SEER stat fact sheets: pancreatic cancer. Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program. 2016. http://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/pancreas.html Accessed November 1, 2016.
2 Interview with Kathy and Mark Fishman. October 2016. Conducted by Andrew Wiecek for the Celgene Newsroom.