Getting ready for bed one night in April 2015, Gary Lemmen looked in the mirror and thought his skin and eyes looked yellow.
He called his wife, Carol, over to have a look. She saw it too and urged him to call the doctor in the morning.
Specifically, a tumor on his pancreatic duct had caused bile to build up in the liver.
He began a journey that the Zeeland, Michigan, resident looks back on as both grueling and “awesome.” A journey that leaves him, at least for now, cancer free.
Putting first things first, Dr. Chung began by placing a temporary stent to open Lemmen’s blocked duct. Next came three rounds of chemotherapy in preparation for a complex surgery called the Whipple procedure.
We don’t worry about the small stuff anymore. It doesn’t matter. …We believe God will take care of us, and he has.
This procedure involved removing the head of Lemmen’s pancreas, the surrounding lymph nodes, the bile duct, the gallbladder and parts of the small intestine and stomach—followed by reconstruction of the abdomen.
It’s a surgery with a high mortality rate nationwide, Dr. Chung said, though the rate at Spectrum Health Cancer Center last year stood at a mere 0.8 percent.
“We have the best mortality rate in the region, if not the nation, for this type of cancer and this type of surgery,” Dr. Chung said.
Lemmen responded well to the Whipple procedure and received follow-up chemotherapy and radiation treatments to keep the cancer from spreading.
“The chemo’s the hardest part,” Lemmen said. “Chemo just sets you back so much.”
But by early 2016, the 6-foot-5 insurance salesman began to regain strength and look to the future.
In May 2016, Lemmen suffered a setback.
A surveillance scan showed a golf ball-size mass in his liver. A biopsy revealed it was cancerous.
Dr. Chung brought the case to his colleagues on Spectrum Health’s gastrointestinal tumor board, a multidisciplinary group that meets weekly to review patients’ situations and choose the best treatment plans.
They decided to have Manish Varma, MD, of the Spectrum Health interventional radiology group, treat Lemmen’s liver tumor with radiofrequency ablation, which uses heat to zap cancer cells without surgery.
This choice was “a little bit on the aggressive side,” Dr. Chung said. Often when pancreatic cancer spreads to other areas, the prognosis isn’t good, he explained. They chose ablation because Lemmen is young and responded well to previous treatments.
The treatment killed the cancer, but infection developed in the liver tissue, sending Lemmen back to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital. The infection required several weeks of drainage. Another round of chemo followed.
Lemmen seemed to be doing well when a follow-up PET scan in November 2016 showed a bad area in the ablated site. The medical team suspected a recurrence of cancer.
Consulting again with the GI tumor board, Dr. Chung decided on another aggressive treatment: surgery to remove the affected portion of the liver. He performed that operation, a right hepatectomy, on Dec. 15, 2016.
The results were good: the suspicous spot wasn’t cancerous. It turned out to be an area of infection, although it had to be removed anyway.
“Sometimes with this kind of cancer, you go in for something like this and you find cancer everywhere. And I kind of half expected that,” Dr. Chung said. “But, actually, his abdomen was pristine.”
Lemmen recalls, through tears, the day he got the good news. It had been two days after the surgery. He’d been readying to leave the hospital when Dr. Chung came into his room and told him the pathology report declared him free of cancer.
“I told the doctor, ‘You’re a miracle—between you and God, you guys saved my life,’” Lemmen said.
Today, Lemmen is on the mend. His liver function is good and he’s trying to regain a few of the 60 pounds he lost during this months-long ordeal.
But the real changes he has experienced aren’t physical. They’re personal and relational.
“The family, we live different now,” he said, referring to his 20-year-old son, Tyler, and his wife of 11 years.
“We don’t worry about the small stuff anymore. It doesn’t matter. …We believe God will take care of us, and he has.”
Lemmen said his cancer experience has transformed his attitude and taught him to treasure the people in his life.
“It really has taught me how to care for people,” he said. “I probably was more of a critical person in the past, and now we don’t have any—the negativity in my home, it doesn’t happen.”
He treasures the support he’s received from his community—family, church friends, colleagues from his office and his wife’s workplace.
“That’s priceless,” he said.
“I really can only say life is good. But I couldn’t do it without a lot of other people’s help.”
Not giving up
What the future holds for the Lemmen family is impossible to say.
On the one hand, Dr. Chung says, the survival statistics for stage 4 pancreatic cancer are not good. On the other hand, Lemmen “has no disease that we can see at this point, to the best of our ability.”
He also has his age and a positive attitude.
“Being young and healthy definitely helps,” Dr. Chung said. “But I think above all else, regardless of age and all that, his outlook on life—he’s a very positive person—I think that helps.”
No matter what happens, Lemmen said, he’s not giving up.
“If it comes back again somewhere, the stuff they’ll have to put me through to conquer that is just another piece of the puzzle,” he said. “If we’ve got to do it, then we’re going to do it.
“I’m not going anywhere yet,” he said. “Life is good.”