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A car accident saved my life

November 14, 2022

Had it not been for an automobile accident five years ago, 81-year-old Ann Draper may not have known she had pancreatic cancer before it was too late. “It was a miracle,” Ann said. “My car was thrown into someone’s backyard from the impact of the crash and the air bag hit me hard!”

A visit to the ER led to a CT scan that showed a mass in her pancreas. A subsequent biopsy resulted in devastating news. The biopsy confirmed the most common cancer arising in the pancreas, adenocarcinoma. At first Ann was comforted in that she hoped that since the finding on CT was an incidental finding, without any symptoms, that perhaps the cancer was early and potentially curable. Unfortunately, hope turned to despair after two specialists at two different university hospitals in Chicago told her there was nothing they could do. Both specialists felt the cancer was too advanced for surgery and that it would be best for her to get her affairs in order as they felt even with chemotherapy her overall survival was only a few months.

At a friend’s suggestion, she reached out to Dr. Malcolm Bilimoria at NCH who after reviewing her old scans and ordering a more detailed CT scan told her “I think I can get this out.” In November of 2017 she underwent a complicated pancreas surgery that required resection and reconstruction of an important blood vessel delivering a major blood supply to the liver. In addition, Dr. Bilimoria used a novel technology called “NanoKnife” to assure that all tumor cells along the margin of excision were eradicated. Dr. Bilimoria explained, “The surgery took more than 3 hours, which is longer than my usual pancreas surgeries, but I was very happy to be able to remove all the cancer, to clean up margins with the NanoKnife and to be able to properly reconstruct the portal vein.”

After recovery from surgery Ann went through chemotherapy and then went on to regular checkups with her oncologist and with Dr. Bilimoria. “Each time we got a set of scans and there was no evidence of any return of the cancer I knew we were getting closer to a complete cure,” Dr. Bilimoria explained. Today, Ann enjoys going to the theatre and walking in the forest preserve near her Hoffman Estates home. “My health is not perfect, but is probably better than most people my age,” she said. “I’m energetic and try to fit exercise in and behave when it comes to my diet.” It is only fitting that this month is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month and it also marks the five year anniversary of Ann’s surgery. Dr. Bilimoria noted, “Five years after surgery marks the transition from remission to actually being able to call a patient cured.”

Ann is forever thankful for Dr. Bilimoria and the exceptional care she received at the Illinois Center for Pancreatic and Hepatobiliary Diseases and at NCH. Dr. Bilimoria points out, “Ann’s story is important in that it shows that there is hope for many pancreatic cancer patients but they must be diligent in seeking help from high volume Pancreas Centers like ours.” “I want people to be encouraged because miracles happen,” Ann said. “Dr. Bilimoria climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with one of his patients and anyone who will go to those lengths for his patients certainly has what it takes to tackle my cancer.”