Kevin Varrone became alarmed when he suddenly experienced pain on his right side during several occasions in late 2010. At first, he attributed the bouts of pain to his diet, but after a few trips to the emergency room, Kevin figured there was something bigger behind the story.
Kevin underwent several tests and physicians couldn't make a diagnosis for the pain. He changed his eating habits and began consuming turkey sandwiches regularly, but the sharp pain persisted.
During another bout of pain and another visit to a gastroenterologist, Kevin was referred to Willis Parsons, MD, and Malcolm Bilimoria, MD, at Northwest Community Healthcare (NCH).
"Dr. Parsons scoped my pancreas and found a mass on the head of the pancreas," Kevin recalls. "He told me that I would need to undergo the Whipple procedure and he highly recommended Dr. Bilimoria."
Dr. Bilimoria is the director of the Illinois Center for Pancreatic and Hepatobiliary Diseases at NCH and Chief of Pancreas and Hepatobiliary Surgery. Dr. Bilimoria has performed more than 600 Whipple surgical procedures, a complex surgery to remove tumors in the head of the pancreas.
Kevin wasted no time in scheduling an appointment with Dr. Bilimoria, who recommended the Whipple procedure. Kevin underwent a four-hour operation to remove a pancreas tumor in October 2011.
"I knew it was going to be a grueling surgery," Kevin says. "He was able to go in there and see what was going on around the pancreas."
During the Whipple procedure, or pancreaticoduodenectomy, surgeons remove the head of the pancreas, parts of the stomach and small intestine, some lymph nodes, the gallbladder and the common bile duct. The remaining organs are reconnected in a new way to allow digestion. Dr. Bilimoria removed a baseball-sized mass that he determined was non-cancerous.
After the surgery, Kevin started his recovery at NCH where he spent 14 days—about the average time for patients who undergo the Whipple.
"One of the best aspects of my job is that I get to meet people with amazing courage and determination," Dr. Bilimoria says. "Kevin stands out as a clear example of what can happen when courage and determination combines with a positive outlook on life."
It was during Kevin's recovery that the 35-year-old father of two sons began contemplating his future and what he wanted to accomplish. Once he was back to work in the construction industry, Kevin set a lofty goal: He wanted to run the Chicago Marathon.
"Years earlier, I had written down that I wanted to run in a marathon," he says. "After going through the Whipple, I decided that the time was here to compete in a marathon."
Kevin started his training slowly, just three months removed from surgery. He began by running three miles a day, three times a week and then gradually built his endurance by increasing his mileage each time.
The training paid off. Nearly one year to the date of his Whipple procedure, Kevin ran in the Chicago Marathon and finished the race in 4 hours, 8 minutes. The thrill of crossing the finish line made all of the training worthwhile.
"I really wanted to finish the race in less than four hours, but I still had a great feeling of accomplishment on that day," he says. "Now I have the drive to run more marathons."
Kevin says he plans on running in his second Chicago Marathon in October, followed by another marathon in the suburbs in November. He continues to see Dr. Bilimoria every few months for follow-up CT scans, but Kevin says he won't be slowing down anytime soon.
Dr. Bilimoria says Kevin recovered more quickly than he expected and credits that to a positive attitude. "To me, Kevin embodies all that the human spirit is capable of when pushed to its limits," Dr. Bilimoria says. "He is not only an inspiration for many of our other patients, but also for our Pancreas Center staff."To read other pancreas cancer patient stories, click here.