When Westminster resident Laurie O'Banion was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic pancreatic cancer in the emergency room of Carroll Hospital, she was given three to six months to live if she sought treatment, even less time if she chose not to undergo treatment.
That was 10 months ago, in December 2015 when, after experiencing pain in her abdomen for a week and delayed approval from insurance to get a CT scan, O'Banion said she walked into the emergency department at the hospital. Doctors told her that she had adenocarcinoma, the same form of pancreatic cancer that killed Patrick Swayze, Joan Crawford and Luciano Pavarotti — "the cancer of the stars," as O'Banion, 59, jokingly calls it. It's also, she said, the same cancer that killed her mother at age 59.
After initial efforts at treatment yielded no results, doctors switched her to a different drug regimen.
Today, O'Banion said her tumors have shown some reduction in size and she is as hopeful as ever that she'll make a full recovery.
The prognosis for pancreatic cancer patients is steadily improving thanks to advances being made in medicine. Many of those advances are taking place just a few miles away at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore.
"Pancreatic cancer right now is basically undergoing a revolution," said Dr. Matthew Weiss, surgical director at Johns Hopkins Liver and Pancreas Cancer Multidisciplinary Clinics.
According to the American Cancer Society, the one-year survival rate for all stages of pancreatic cancer combined is 20 percent.
Thanks to improvements in chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, the survival rate is going up, Weiss said, as is the quality of life for those undergoing treatment.
Historically, the approach to pancreatic cancer has been to take the broadest strokes available in treatment of the disease. Now, Weiss said, there is an effort to make treatment more personalized, tailoring the treatment to individual patients.
On the surgical side, Weiss said there is a focus on performing surgeries with smaller incisions that allow for shorter lengths of stay for patients.
On the drug side, Johns Hopkins scientists recently reported the discovery of scientific evidence that supports combining anti-cancer drugs in a way that targets metabolic pathways favored by cancer cells, according to a Hopkins news release from August.
"We have to hit cancer cells from more than one angle, and that's made it important to learn how to combine drugs that hit the right combination of pathways," Dr. Anne Le, assistant professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and member of the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, said in the release.
"It's definitely an exciting time," Weiss said.
O'Banion said she is feeling optimistic. A patient at Carroll Hospital's infusion center, she said she was initially given a potent cocktail of medication essentially continuously delivered via an infusion pump she nicknamed "Severus Snape" after a character in the Harry Potter series. But after about two months, there were no notable improvements to her status.
In February, she said, doctors switched her treatment to three weeks of Gemzar and Abraxane and one week off. While she has no updated prognosis, she said she is encouraged to have already outlived what doctors initially told her she should expect.
"There's never a prognosis," she said. "There's always hoping for the best."
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