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Susan Stewart - Pancreatic cancer patient 

Susan Stewart

Susan Stewart and her dog. (Mike Wakefield/North Shore News)

‘This is a disease that needs more hope’—Susan Stewart, pancreatic cancer patient

When Susan Stewart felt nauseous during a weekend run in November 2016, she never would have guessed she was about to be diagnosed with Stage IV, terminal pancreatic cancer.

“I consider myself a really healthy person. I run, don’t drink much, and I’ve never smoked,” says the 58-year-old, who lives in North Vancouver, B.C. with her husband and has three adult children. “I thought I must be coming down with the flu, and rested for the rest of the weekend.”

On Monday she returned to work, but after a trip to the washroom was stunned to see her urine was extremely dark. Panicked, she called her doctor.

“That was the first indication I had that I was sick. Literally I was fine, and then over a weekend I was not fine,” she says, noting she was officially diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer on Jan. 4, 2017. “Even in hindsight I had none of the symptoms or risk factors. It shouldn’t have hit me. It was a real shock, and that was almost the hardest thing to deal with. It was unbelievable, really.”

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth most common cause of cancer-related death in Canada, affecting 5,500 people a year. The diseases poses several major challenges for both patients and researchers: a lack of early detection tests as well as few known symptoms typically result in a late diagnosis. Unlike other cancers, there are currently no biomarkers or subtypes of the disease, and there are few treatment options available.

Initially overwhelmed by the poor prognosis of her disease, Stewart decided to get into the most positive mind frame she could. Within a week of her diagnosis she was enrolled into TFRI’s Enhanced Pancreatic Cancer Profiling for Individualized Care (EPPIC) clinical trial during the project’s pilot phase, and started on a new experimental therapy. Although it is early days yet, her results are promising: after 1.5 years of treatment her pancreatic cancer tumour is no longer visible on CT scans, and the metastatic cancer on her liver has shrunk considerably.

“It’s been amazing. I’ve had some really, really good results,” Stewart says, noting treatment side effects have been minimal. “It’s really great they have this treatment where you can still function at a pretty high level with it, despite having Stage IV terminal cancer.”

Raising awareness – and money for research – has become very important to Stewart and her family. She hopes taking part in EPPIC will improve her outcome and also help future patients.

“With the clinical trial and all the money going into the disease now, there’s HOPE in capital letters,” she says. “I think that’s a really great thing for people in my situation, and my push is to keep the support coming for the research. This is a disease that needs more hope.”

To motivate herself during treatment, Stewart sets regular goals. She took up snowshoeing, skis with her family, hikes every week, and completed the 10-kilometre Vancouver Sun run last year with her husband.

“I’m already signed up for the Sun Run again this year, and I might not be fast but I’ll finish it,” she says, chuckling. “I still beat a lot of people last year, I was not the last one to finish!”

This May she will attend her daughter’s university graduation, something she feared she wouldn’t be able to do when she was diagnosed.

“Those little glimmers of hope from the treatments mean so much,” she says. “I might not live for another 30 years but I’ll take what I can get. I’ve really learned to appreciate every month I’m here.”

Pancreatic Cancer Research: 
Canadian pancreatic cancer research team provides personalized medicine, new hope to patients

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