John Morris believes in happy endings. After all, he’s living one.
Morris, 71, is slaying the odds of pancreatic cancer, a disease that not so long ago carried a fatal ending.
“I had two bouts of pancreatitis a couple of summers ago,” the Traverse City, Michigan, resident said. “They were quite intense. My genetic testing showed that I had a gene mutation—the BRCA2.”
BRCA2 is typically associated with breast cancer and ovarian cancer, but it can affect men as well.
In males, the gene mutation can cause cancer of the prostate, pancreas or, on rare occasion, breast.
Morris’ father died of prostate cancer in his 60s.
“Got it when he was 62 and dead by the time he was 65,” Morris said.
His father’s uncle suffered the same fate.
“It appears it’s come down through several generations,” Morris said.
Last summer, after Morris and his wife, Nancy, hiked in Spain, Morris contracted food poisoning.
“When we got back here to Michigan, I thought my gut had settled down,” he said. “I thought everything was OK.
“I started noticing a little pain, very mild pain. On a zero to 10 scale, I’d put it at 2. It was on my left side, right under my rib cage. It didn’t go away. When I ate large meals, the pain went up to a 4 or 5, then it would settle down. It was 24/7 subtle pain.”
Morris visited a digestive health clinic in Northern Michigan for an ultrasound.
On his 71st birthday, his world whirled. An endoscopic ultrasound revealed a tumor on his pancreas. A biopsy confirmed cancer in his pancreas and lymph nodes.
He and Nancy had retired to Northern Michigan six years prior to explore outdoor adventures—bicycling, hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
But besides researching recreational opportunities before their big move from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Morris researched medical facilities in West Michigan, just in case they would ever need health help.
Over the winter, he spent much more time in hospitals than on the ski trails.
“I got that diagnosis on my 71st birthday,” he said. “In my reading about pancreatic cancer, the median age for diagnosis is 71.”
Morris met it head-on. It’s not a statistical honor he treasures.
“For years I have known how deadly pancreatic cancer is,” he said. “When I knew of other people getting that diagnosis, the first thought in my head was, ‘So and so better get their affairs in order because they’re a dead man or dead woman walking.’”
But if there’s a silver lining to pancreatic cancer, Morris won the silver: His cancer remained confined to the tail of his pancreas.
Independent of each other, two Northern Michigan cancer specialists suggested Morris see Mathew Chung, MD, chief of surgical oncology for Spectrum Health.
“They both brought up the name Mathew Chung,” Morris said. “All my records, scans and history were sent to Dr. Chung. I had a consultation with him in November of last year, shortly after we got the diagnosis.”
Dr. Chung determined Morris was not ready for surgery. He recommended chemotherapy every two weeks in Traverse City—a four-drug cocktail designed to shrink the tumor.
“It’s a killer of a treatment, but it’s life-saving, too,” Morris said. “It’s one of those drugs, you hate it, but you love it. Some people just throw in the towel. It’s just too much. It’s no picnic, but I didn’t get violently ill with vomiting and sores in my mouth like some people do.”
After four chemotherapy treatments, the tumor maintained the lead on Morris’ life.
“After eight rounds and more scans, I got a call from Dr. Chung saying, ‘Come see me, you’re ready,'” Morris said.
He underwent surgery on April 11 at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.
“The chemotherapy did more than just shrink it,” Morris said. “It killed it.
“Dr. Chung removed half of my pancreas. He also removed my spleen and my gall bladder. Neither of them had cancer in them, but he felt they needed to go and I trust his judgement.
“The tumor on the tail of the pancreas was entwined with the blood supply to the spleen,” he said. “He worried about complications and he thought the gall bladder may have caused the pancreatitis.”
Long story short: The cancer in his pancreas and lymph nodes died and had not spread.
Good news on all counts
“He got all the cancer out of me,” Morris said. “The normal route is to go to radiation after surgery, but I met with a radiologist and he said, ‘John, there’s really nothing in you to radiate.’”
Morris underwent four more chemotherapy treatments to make sure no microscopic cancer cells lurked.
“At our post-op consultation, Dr. Chung was elated,” Morris said.
Dr. Chung said Morris’ prognosis is promising after chemotherapy to downstage the tumor and surgery to remove part of his pancreas and lymph nodes.
“I’m ecstatic with the pathology report,” Dr. Chung said. “He has a shot at beating his cancer. Hopefully, he is cured. Time will tell.”
Morris credits Dr. Chung and the collaboration between Spectrum Health and Munson Hospital in Traverse City with saving his life. Or at the very least, extending it.
“There was wonderful cooperation,” Morris said. “People up here didn’t hesitate saying, ‘It’s Dr. Mathew Chung we want you to see.’ Great communication is really important in treating pancreatic cancer.”
Morris said his outcome couldn’t have been any better.
“When institutions can work together on behalf of the patient and get a great outcome like this, I think that’s a story to be told,” he said.